My Christmas begins on a cold evening early in December with the first batch of eggnog. After I shut up the chickens, feed the dogs and light the fire, I ladle out the eggnog into a glass which has an inch of bourbon in the bottom. I stir it and grate a crust of nutmeg on top. Then I sit down with my copy of A Christmas Memory, a bittersweet story by Truman Capote about a dreamy seven-year-old boy making fruitcakes for Christmas with his beloved sixty-something cousin. The story takes place in the 1930s, but time used to move slowly in the rural South, and the smell of the kitchen, the feel of the cold air, is as familiar to me as my grandmother’s kitchen. As I read and drink, my own Christmas memories kick in. Like Buddy’s cousin in the story, my grandmother could kill a rattlesnake with a hoe and tame hummingbirds. And like Buddy and his cousin, every year we went to the bootlegger to get bourbon for her fruitcakes.
Those trips signalled the beginning of Christmas. Old Mr Piggot would come out to the car and lean courteously over the car window. A tall, gaunt man with only one arm-he’d lost the other one in the cotton gin-he didn’t make moonshine, he simply ‘imported’ whiskey from Tennessee in the trunk of his car. My grandmother always told him she’d come for ‘whiskey for my fruitcakes’ and Mr Piggot softly replied to the widow of the county prosecuting attorney, ‘Yes ma’am, I know that.’
Unlike Buddy’s cousin (in real life, his aunt), my grandmother would never have sent a fruitcake to President Roosevelt, but she wouldn’t have sent a cake to President Bush either. Her cakes, like her generosity, were for ‘family’ only.
Now all that’s left of that world is my great Aunt Edna, the youngest of the five sisters. She turned 100 in October and lives with Aunt Ruby who is seventy-something. You still can’t buy bourbon in Scott County, which remains steadfastly ‘dry’, and the nearest ‘wet’ county is 50 miles. ‘Honey, we’ve got something better than bourbon,’ Aunt Edna tells me when I call. ‘We bought a generator!’ After Hurricane Katrina, they were without electricity for 10 days. ‘This is our Christmas present to ourselves-we just went wild!’
My great-aunt is the curator of our family, the last one left who remembers all of us as children, the genealogist who’s never done research, just remembers. She’s also the only grown-up who never yelled at us, and was never impatient or unkind.
When Sam was small, I used to read this story to him, stopping to tell him when Capote’s story dovetailed with my own. Now, at 16, he’s happy for me to take this sentimental journey on my own. Instead, we’ll drive to Cambridge and see Capote, a film described in today’s paper as ‘beautifully austere and morally searching’. It tells how the elfin boy of A Christmas Memory came to write and publish In Cold Blood. Time moves on.
By the time I’ve finished my second glass of eggnog, I wish I had the nerve, the energy, the imagination, to create a viable other kind of Christmas for Sam. A Christmas that begins with a spooky trip to the bootlegger, and fruitcakes which never contain anything red or green. A Christmas where he earns money picking pecans (25 cents for each full lard bucket) and spends every Saturday searching for the perfect present. A Christmas preceded by months and months of yearning. A Christmas morally searching and beautifully austere.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 1, 2005.