Truman Capote is best known for In Cold Blood, the chilling account of a Kansas farm family’s 1959 murder that birthed a new form of journalism. But at this time of year, he is remembered for A Christmas Memory, a short story that recalls his little-boy life with a distant cousin, a woman in her sixties with the mind and innocence of a child. She calls him Buddy; he calls her his best friend.
Each year, as the weeks edge toward Christmas, Buddy’s friend feels the season, and a certain quickening in her bones. “It’s fruitcake weather!” she declares, mostly to herself but partly to him. And thereby commences a ritual that makes wealth from the abject poverty in which they lived together during the Depression: a stealthy harvest of the neighbor’s windfall pecans, an accounting of their meager savings, the careful allocation to purchase fruitcake ingredients: cherries, citron, ginger, vanilla, canned pineapple, rinds, raisins and walnuts, spices, flavorings, bootleg whiskey and a battalion of basics: flour, butter, eggs. Four days later, 31 fruit cakes emerge from the heavy wood- and coal-fired cookstove.
Here’s where the story takes an unexpected turn, because all this money and time and effort has been carefully spent not on behalf of loved ones, but for the kind of friends not typically recognized as such, “persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all,” Capote writes: Baptist missionaries who traveled through on a lecture tour, a young couple who passed the time of day on the front porch after their car broke down, a bus driver who waves as he goes by.
“Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends?” Capote writes. “I think yes.”
I think yes, too, and something more.
Over time, our closest relationships often are tempered with difficult feelings: disappointment, resentment, sadness. Mistrust, maybe. Guilt, regret, anger. Our shared histories — our lived experience of each other, our certainty about each other’s failings as well as strengths — complicate once-callow love.
Perhaps it’s inevitable. But in Capote’s memory and in my own frustrated longing, I felt the appeal of that small and simpler love, built on innocence — call it ignorance, if you must — and made entirely of good will. Because if there’s one thing that hurts more than not being completely loved, it’s not loving completely.
I was still considering this the day after re-reading the story, when I drove past a guy on a street corner near my grocery store. Panhandlers often are there. You know the kind: scraggly and dirty, holding crumpled cardboard signs that say they’re hungry or homeless or broke. Or all three. Or worse. The ones you think could as easily get a job as loiter on street corners, who might quit spending money on cigarettes if they’re that hard up for cash. The ones who will probably spend any money you’d give them at the closest liquor store. You know.
But I didn’t hear those stories in my head this time. I heard the other one, the one about fruitcake weather. So I went home and baked apple-carrot-coconut muffins, with eggs and butter and blackstrap molasses. Sturdy, healthy. And when they were still warm from the oven I wrapped two in paper towels, put a few bucks in my pocket, and drove back to the grocery corner.
The man I’d seen was gone, so I drove around the parking lot, which is shared by other stores, and soon enough came across another scruffy cold person, a young man who had been hanging around the entrance to Walgreen’s, looking hopefully at passersby until the store managers shooed him off their property. Now he was sitting on the parking lot curb, head down, hoodie pulled tight against the wind.
I parked the car and got out, muffins and money in hand.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“I’m so hungry,” he said, and then gestured toward Walgreens. “They kicked me off the property. I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”
I touched his arm, handed him the bills and the muffins.
“It’s OK,” I said. “They’re still warm.” And then — brightly: “They’re gluten-free!”
I laughed at myself, then — thinking that a hungry human being would be picky about celiac disease — but then, I’m new at this. And, it turns out, not very good. I’ve nearly rear-ended other drivers while scanning busy corners and storefronts for people I might love simply, and just for a minute. One older woman, sitting with legs akimbo in a parking lot with a tattered daypack and a grocery bag of belongings next to her, declined both money and one of the hearty cornmeal muffins I made yesterday and warmed in the microwave before heading out.
“I just drank a quart of milk,” she explained, her lined and leathery face studying me from beneath a halo of flyaway grey hair. “I’ve got plenty to eat.”
It was OK, though; later, back at the Safeway street corner, was a man I’d not seen before, wearing a beard and wild hair, beautiful eyes and a kind smile. The muffin wasn’t warm anymore, but he took it and the money, too, thanked me and promised he’d look for shelter the next night; we’re forecast for snow, and bitter cold.
Today, I’m making energy-dense power bars. But anything personal will do: a baggie of nuts or dried fruit, some jerky or cheese or peanut butter. Something that will stick to their ribs for awhile. Something sustaining.
Or, if you don’t bake or are too shy or scared to approach a homeless person, you could do what a stranger out walking his dog did for me yesterday, as we passed on the sidewalk of my little town’s center. He met my eyes and smiled. Just that. And this: “Merry Christmas!” he said. “Merry Christmas!” I called back. And I was happier for that encounter all day long.
Because there we were, two people whose strengths and flaws were unknown to each other and irrelevant, who were passing through each other’s lifetimes not long enough to judge one another, but long enough to say, in our way: You are a valuable part of the human race. I’m glad you’re here. I wish you well.
Loving each other for just a few seconds.
Because, buddy: It’s fruitcake weather.