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 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 on 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 in Buddy’s voice. “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. Shared histories — our lived experience of each other, our certainty about our own and each other’s failings and strengths — complicate once-callow love.
Perhaps it’s inevitable. But in Capote’s memory and in my own frustrated longing, I feel 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 feeling loved, it’s not feeling loving.
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 cold or broke. Or all four. 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, 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 strip mall parking lot, 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 manager shooed him off their property. Now he was sitting on a 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: Since that first day, I’ve twice nearly rear-ended other drivers while scanning busy corners and storefronts for people I might love simply, just for a minute.
Yesterday, back near Safeway, was a man I’d not seen before, wearing a beard and wild hair, beautiful eyes and a kind smile. The cornmeal muffins I’d baked weren’t warm anymore, but he took them and the money, too. He looked at me — saw me — and thanked me, then promised he’d seek shelter the next night; we’re forecast for snow, and bitter cold.
And that’s how it was, for just a minute: 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.
Because, buddy: It’s fruitcake weather.
A slightly different version of this post first appeared here a year ago.