Friday, December 18, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Visitor" and "One Christmas"

Truman Capote published three holiday stories based on his childhood experiences. 

“A Christmas Memory” (see previous post Dec. 2011) appeared in 1956 and is probably the best known.  It is the most nostalgic of the three, recalling his relationship at age seven with an elderly distant cousin, who is “herself a child.”  The two have formed a bond as outsiders in their household.  Buddy, as the older cousin calls him, helps his “friend” gather pecans, make fruitcakes, and prepare Christmas gifts.  Years later, when he receives word of his “friend’s” death, he recalls the kites they made for each other and imagines, “rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

“A Thanksgiving Visitor” was published in 1967 and “One Christmas” in 1982.  Buddy is seven or eight in the second story and six in the third.  These later stories are more complex than the first.  Though there is still some sentimentality surrounding Sook, the elder cousin’s name, as we learn in the second story, they both convey a greater sense of moral complexity, as young “Buddy” experiences more of the dark side of life.

From these two stories we learn that Buddy and Sook had both been taken in by relatives, who are busy running several businesses while Sook stays home, does the cooking and housework, and serves as a surrogate mother to Buddy, whose birth mother, having married young, had divorced the father, and left Buddy with family while she went off to pursue college and career.  In “One Christmas” Buddy makes a brief reference to her suicide by drug overdose in later life.

Having been abandoned by both parents at an early age, Buddy has already seen the dark side, but he is happy in his adopted family and especially in his relationship with Sook.  Both of these two later stories can be viewed as initiation narratives, as the young, innocent Buddy encounters the cruelty and selfishness in the world, including in himself.

In “One Christmas” it is questionable whether he recognizes the darkness in his own heart, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor” he learns a painful lesson in the cruelty that he is capable of.

Though it was published last “One Christmas” takes place earliest in Buddy’s life.  He is unexpectedly invited to travel alone 400 miles from his home in rural Alabama to spend Christmas with his father in New Orleans.  Buddy barely remembers his father and is terrified of leaving his comfortable home with Sook to spend Christmas in a strange city with a strange man.

He makes the journey, though, and discovers first-hand his father’s somewhat profligate urban lifestyle of big-spending, partying, and pursuing older rich women, who subsidize him.  It is on this trip that Buddy also learns that there really is no Santa Claus, but he plays innocent and manipulates his father into buying him an expensive airplane with pedals.  Thus is Buddy not only initiated into his father’s profligacy but into his own ability to deceive and manipulate others for his own selfish ends. 

It’s unclear how aware the child Buddy is of his own capacity for taking advantage of others, but the adult Buddy, who is narrating the story, clearly presents the episode as a kind of fall from childhood innocence.

The story also suggests a kind of reversal of the prodigal son parable, as before leaving Buddy at the train station, his prodigal father begs his six-year-old son to kiss him and declare his love before returning home. 
Later, Sook reassures Buddy: “Of course there is a Santa Claus. It’s just that no single somebody could do all he has to do.  So the Lord has spread the task among us all.  That’s why everybody is Santa Claus.”

If Santa Claus is no longer quite the same, though, Buddy’s belief in God remains intact, and he imagines “the voice of the Lord telling me something I must do.”  He sends his father a postcard, in which he writes, “…I am lurning to pedal my plan so fast I will soon be in the sky so keep your eyes open and yes I love you Buddy.”

Is this our reassurance that, while Buddy may have lost his innocence at one level, he is able to reclaim it at another?  Or is Buddy deceiving himself about the state of his own heart?

One wonders too if, like that other son, Icarus, Buddy might be in danger of flying too close to the sun.

In “A Thanksgiving Visitor” a slightly older Buddy suffers the daily torments of an older bully in school, a boy named Odd Henderson, “the meanest human creature in my experience.”  Buddy confides in Sook the cruelties he is subjected to, but Sook, a developmentally challenged adult, refuses to believe anyone could be that evil.  She knows the large Henderson family and their struggles in rural Alabama during the Depression with a father in prison.  She decides to invite Odd to join their family for Thanksgiving. 

Buddy is mortified, treats Odd rudely when he arrives, and takes an opportunity for revenge.  While hiding upstairs he observes Odd steal Sook’s cameo from the bathroom.  As the family gathers for dinner, Buddy loudly and publically accuses Odd of he theft.  Sook immediately goes upstairs to check and returns to cover for Odd, stating that the cameo is safely in place.  Buddy is shocked, but even more so when Odd stands up, confesses the crime, returns the cameo, and excuses himself, thereby shaming Buddy, who had hoped to shame Odd.

Feeling that Sook has forsaken him, Buddy retreats outside to the smokehouse, where he fantasizes about hopping a train or committing suicide.  Later Sook consoles him, but imparts a hard lesson: “Two wrongs never make a right.  It was wrong of him to take the cameo…(but) what you did was much worse: you planned to humiliate him.  It was deliberate…. there is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty.”

As a six-year-old in “One Christmas,” Buddy may not have the self-awareness to recognize his own culpability in manipulating his father, but in “A Thanksgiving Visitor,” at seven or eight, he is forced to confront his own capacity for cruelty.

What Buddy is not aware of but Sook had discovered when talking to Odd’s mother is that, however cruel Odd may be at school, he is a great help and comfort to his mother at home.

Years later, just before Odd joins the Merchant Marines and Buddy is sent off to a military academy, Odd happens by the house and stops to help Sook and Buddy lift a heavy washtub of blossoming chrysanthemums up the steps onto the porch.  Odd ignores Buddy but is polite to Sook, who hands him a bouquet of flowers to take to his mother.  She calls to him as he walks away, “…be careful! They’re lions, you know.”  Odd would not have understood, but Buddy would recall how Sook often compared chrysanthemums to lions: “I always expect them to spring. To turn on me and roar.” Somewhat as Odd had sprung on Buddy in school, and Buddy, in turn, had sprung on Odd at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

This image of the dual-natured chrysanthemums, both beautiful and menacing, embodies the duality of human nature, capable as it is of both charity and cruelty.

Both stories function as quasi-confessionals from the adult narrator, looking back on his innocent and not-so-innocent childhood self.  Both portray the moral complexity of human nature.  Both testify to the wisdom and compassion of a developmentally challenged adult, whose own moral character surpasses that of a precocious child.

Both “A Christmas Memory” and “One Christmas” use the image of flying, two kites “hurrying toward heaven” and a toy plane in which Buddy imagines himself lifting into the sky.  These images convey a sense of transcendence over the darkness of death and human failure, just as, at the time of the Winter Solstice, we look forward to the return of the light at the darkest time of year.