When Geraldine Page creates “Souk” in Truman Capote’s most wonderful work, “A Christmas Memory,” she rises into film legend. Forget Capote’s nonfiction novel from the late 1960s about a family’s murder in Kansas, or even his “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Audrey Hepburn. These are the trifles of a soul uprooted from his “old country,” from Alabama. What New York and booze did to Capote has been well chronicled. I choose to hear his voice, that reedy, lisping man-boy voice narrating a piece of magazine fluff that, for me, is nearly immortal.
My “old country” is Charleston, South Carolina, in early winter, the “fruitcake weather” that sends Souk and the boy she calls Buddy across dried-up fields to gather pecans. Souk shakes her head at a sign prohibiting entrance to the grove: “I do not admire a man who puts up a sign,” she says. Then with Queenie, the black-eyed terrier, running ahead, she bends under the leafless trees and calls, “Buddy, Buddy, look here; there’re lots of big ones.”
Some years Christmas slides almost unnoticed under the door; I take its coat and offer it a beverage or two, but I am distracted, unable to give it a true welcome. This year, I’ve insisted early, “Let’s put up the tree.” At the St. Paul’s Farmer’s Market, where trees lie in their casings like bound bodies, I buy a wreath from the plain-clothes farmer who tries to sell me a larger one, but I take the smaller, for there are many other purchases to make. With the tree up– fake, I confess, decked beyond its capacity with the gems of many Christmases, four households combined before this one–I insist we have to watch our video copy of “A Christmas Memory.”
Now in Geraldine Page and Capote’s voices, portraying Souk and Buddy, I send my own version of forty fruitcakes–theirs went to President Roosevelt and a young couple whose car broke down and who spent several hours “with us in pleasant conversation.” Their voices reverberate while I travel to my Old Country and the few remaining loved ones and scenes who bring me deep into the heart’s core.
I don’t want a perfect tree, done up in lace, color-coded and sprayed with glitter. I want my tree, with the balls whose surface is worn to glass; the clothespin doll with tuft of red hair, gift from some extravagant friend; the Chinese pagoda which opens into hexagonal silk scenes, gift from Fran’s semi-Chinese parents (his father born of Iowa missionaries in China). This amalgam of lives, touched with the memories of other years when there were still kids full-time, when aged parents still waited in South Carolina and Tennessee, this is the tree I cherish. A tree for just us two, which Julia, the black and white, can climb as soon as it is up and peer down at us from the topmost branches.
Spare me perfection which turns my impulses toward glossy-magazine anonymity. I want the echo of Southern voices, lights to blaze in real darkness, the inevitable losses, the memories of kindness beyond measure–my mother’s last tree, bought by her caregiver, a generous-hearted black woman who “gave the most glorious baths.” When you’re over 90, and afraid of the tub, caring hands make the body grateful. To all those I’ve loved, who are now wisps in the darkness, and to those still living, I send greetings.