Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I've been missing my friend John, at MISSISSIPPI GARDEN. He's been away from the blog-world for quite some time, as he has not been well enough to continue of late, but I look often to see if he's checked in, or perhaps just peeked at his own messages I've left, wishing him well.

The first Christmas of my blog, he had posted a piece about his favorite modern Christmas story---Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. It's also one of my own, for the times and circumstances so nearly mirrored my own raising, with Mammaw and a group of Aunts all chiming in on my welfare and manners and grooming, though they did not actually RAISE me, in the sense of every day looking-after.

And Y'all know I very rarely repeat a post, but this little book bears looking at, bears reading, for a real and stark and stunning picture of a little boy's life in the South of his day, with the devoted, fierce woman who took him in and did her absolute best for him, despite her own meager circumstances. And the almost-zany zeal with which she carries out her own odd Christmas tradition---that bespeaks a Southern woman's determination and grit and sheer strength of will to overcome and outlast and follow through.

I love Aunt Sook, as I loved and remember fondly all the odd group of Aunts of my own---the one who DIPPED and traveled hundreds of miles on Greyhound to come spend summers with us, ferrying tiny Ayres and Avon samples in her vast suitcase---oddly enough, from the big city I now live in; the one whose livelihood got her tossed in the calaboose for the activities of the scandalous houseful of young ladies she was "counseling," and the one whose quiet, spare reserve sent her deep into the beautiful realms of paint-by-number to escape the constant humming hive of the six-days-a-week dawn-to-dark little country store they owned. And always, my Mammaw.

And so, from LAWN TEA, Christmas, 2008---Reflections on A Christmas Memory:

One blog featured Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” in a daily post, the stark words re-read this morning with my first coffee. I could feel those cold Christmas-morning planks of the bedroom floor, see the hard-won clumsy homemade gifts and tree decorations, smell the scents of Winter-long bacon grease and Vicks in that drafty grim house.

The faded gray tones of the accompanying picture echo those in my own scrapbooks and albums. Little Truman squints and gives a tentative smile into the sun, as the limp skirt of his spare, gaunt kinswoman hangs beside the pants of his short white boysuit.

I know that woman---called “Aunt Sook,” though she was some distant cousin, as unwanted and unwelcome in the household as the quiet, brilliant little boy. You can see the arthritic clench of her hands which had just made thirty fruitcakes, chopping and stirring, sending them to the Roosevelts and other dignitaries, as well as neighbors and friends---she'd saved every coin and dollar she could spare for the year, hiding them in a purse beneath the floorboard under the chamberpot beneath her bed.

Those same wiry hands had chopped down a Christmas tree, wrestling it home past bayou and brush, for that beloved child, and decorated it with bits and bobs of anything pretty she could scrounge.

I know that scraggy porch, the one “turned” post standing valiantly against the sag of time, the rattly boards of the steps, the GRAY of the whole thing---the house and the porch and the prospects and the people and the time. There are plants on the porch, and contrary to my Mammaw's first porch, the one of my childhood, with the big old creaky swing, there are no coffeecans in sight. I'd have expected at least one, holding a cutting of something-or-other, to coddle into flourishment in that ripe Alabama climate. Mammaw's coffeecans held mostly coleus---plural to her, I suppose, for if she gave you ONE, it was a colea. I never GOT the difference til I learned to read, and seed catalogs were some of my favorites.

We have pictures of that hollow-faced woman in our own handed-down flaps of Kodak-cardboard; the deep, wise eyes, the scrunched-back, sparse hair, the best-dress for the honor of the event, the still stare captured in its simple eloquence. She even LOOKS like my Mammaw and her sisters, though three of them, including Mammaw, were definitely not slim, spare ladies. They were bright, laughing women, whose conversation and dress and daily doings were not of the gray sort.

And so, his Christmas Memory. Very unlike mine in content, but so similar in locale, in persona, in clime and in women whose lives were of that time and place. My own memories lean more to scratchy dresses and a big noon dinner with kinfolk at Mammaw's house, with her own small tree set on the living room/bedroom dresser and her own bed behind a curtain not six feet from the dining table in the "middle room."

Men sat on the porch, came rumbling in to eat, rocked back on two chair-legs with toothpicks from the tiny vase; they soon vacated their places for Second Table, went outside, smoked, talked, kicked car tires and smoked some more. I think---for they were as peripheral to my ken as I to theirs.

But, like Truman, I DO remember the Women. Christmas and every day of my life.


mississippi artist said...

I so love this story also-it is one of my favorites and though I never had an Aunt Sook-I am sure lots of children did-or at least I hope so.I am sitting here wondering if some of these troubled children today had Someone to be an Aunt Sook to them, if maybe their lives would turn out different. Merry Christmas to you.

Chesapeake said...

Never had the relatives close by as I was growing up, but I knew them in the various churches I attended, and some were an Aunt Sook to a small, lonely, skinny little girl mostly dressed in hand-me-downs.

Still remember the cedar Christmas trees, too. Scratchy? Oh, my.

Kim Shook said...

I love this story so much - both for the dearness of an Aunt Sook and for the little Truman - real and sweet and boyish and sadly forgetful of what Sook meant in his life. There is none of the grown up Truman oddness and artifice. A sweet story.