Editor’s Note: Phil Clapham, the Desert Island Bookworm of The Beachcomber, is joined this week by reporter Elizabeth Shepherd. They each recommend a favorite holiday story, one they return to each year, right around this time. Which books would you take to a desert island? Email email@example.com.
By Phil Clapham and Elizabeth Shepherd
For The Beachcomber
“A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
So begins the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ intensely lyrical story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, published in 1954. It’s a wonderful portrait of Christmas in a small seaside community long ago, amplified through the lens of childhood memories, and full of vividly painted details of family and small-town life. “It was always snowing at Christmas,” Thomas says, snow that “came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.”
Thomas provides a memorable portrait of the relatives that came together for the holiday, including aunts and uncles. “There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles.” And “some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.” One gets repeated mentions: “Auntie Hannah, who liked port, stood in the middle of the snowbound back yard, singing like a big-bosomed thrush.” And later: “Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest.” And, still later: “Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.”
The narrator remembers carol-singing with his friends, approaching a dark house at the end of a long drive. “The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves.” Nervously, they begin to sing a carol. “And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house.”
It’s a beautiful remembrance of childhood, perfect for reading aloud to family by the fire on a late December night.
— Phil Clapham
“A Christmas Memory”
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
So ends “A Christmas Memory,” an achingly beautiful short story by Truman Capote, first published in Mademoiselle magazine in December 1956.
In skipping to the ending first, (a trick I learned from the Desert Island Bookworm) the reader understands that the story is about identity and loss, but also, the way that one relationship can lift two battered souls.
The kinship detailed in Capote’s autobiographical story, set in the 1930s, is that of himself, as a seven-year-old child called Buddy, and his elderly distant cousin named Sook.
“Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend,” Capote wrote.
With those lyrical sentences, Capote establishes that he and Sook are treated by the rest of the family as unwelcome charity cases, but the sad circumstances that led them to this place aren’t further discussed. Rather, the story is about the eccentric and secret world of Christmas traditions that he and Sook share.
“It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: “It’s fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat,” wrote Capote.
The story goes on to richly detail the hustle and bustle of the pair as they embark on their annual practice of making fruitcakes for a Christmas list of recipients who are mostly strangers, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Their only other companion, a dog named Queenie, accompanies them as they shop for their precious ingredients, but midway through the story, another human character is introduced. He’s a man named Mr. Haha Jones, whose rough and isolated juke joint Sook and Buddy warily approach to buy the small amount of whiskey necessary for their fruitcakes.
His character, too, is a despised and rejected person, and his outsider presence reinforces the story’s Southern setting — a region that one of my favorite songwriters, Robbie Fulks, has brutally called a place “where kindness is a show for strangers.”
Only Haha Jones, the bootlegger, proves himself to be so kind that he is repaid by earning a spot on the pairs’ list of fruitcake recipients.
I spent my childhood Christmases in a Southern house filled with near and distant relatives, some kind, some eccentric, and others not to be trusted. Fruitcakes were made in this house, too. A dog named Queenie, who was not allowed inside, slept on the porch. So this story resonates deeply with me. I feel that I am there and that I know Buddy — a sensitive, abandoned child who dreams of tap-dancing for a living — and his champion, a developmentally disabled older woman who is, in fact, a genius. Together, they carve out a Christmas that is full of love.
If you have not yet read this story, or forgotten to re-read it this season, consider this reminder my holiday gift to you.
— Elizabeth Shepherd