A Christmas Memory

In years when I was not running behind by December, when I hadn’t lingered too long on To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations or any other of the books my freshmen read, back when so many days weren’t set aside for standardized tests and final exams and AR assessments, back when I had control of the calendar, I liked to set aside the last several instructional days of the semester for Christmas literature. Sometimes we read A Christmas Carol, sometimes Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” sometimes Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” My favorite, of course, was the latter—for two reasons. First, because the story lends itself to the students writing their own memoirs about Christmas—always a delight to read—and then, because I loved watching my students come slowly to the realization that the little boy narrator of “A Christmas Memory” and Dill Harris in To Kill a Mockingbird were one and the same person.

That was, of course, when such knowledge was still a revelation. Today, because of the Internet mostly, kids already know. This upset me at first. A perfectly wonderful epiphany: smashed. But I got over it. (The real Buddy as the model for Dill isn’t the only literary surprise the Internet has ruined. These days the kids know before they read the Odyssey or their first Shakespearean play that Homer wasn’t one person and Shakespeare may not have been Shakespeare.)

But back when Buddy/Dill was still a surprise, we’d read the story together—parts of it, at least, aloud.  Knowing where the story goes, I’d have trouble when the kites begin their ascent to the sky, when Queenie buries her bone, when Buddy’s best friend, Sook, says, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”  It was worse than that, actually.  I’d get choked up at the very beginning—when Sook first says: “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!”

The story is so rich:

  • In figurative language: “a pillow as wet as a widow’s handkerchief,” “the blaze of her heart,” and the stove “like a lighted pumpkin.”
  • In catalogues, or lists: the uses of the dilapidated baby carriage, the ways Sook and Buddy make money, the recipients of the fruitcakes, the contents of the trunk in the attic, the Christmas presents from the others, and most especially, the things Sook “has never done and the things she has done, does do.”
  • In sensory imagery: the ingredients in the fruitcakes, Haha Jones’ scar, the ornaments for the tree, Miss Sook dropping the kettle on the kitchen floor to awaken the sleeping relatives, Miss Sook herself in her gray sweater and Lincoln-like face.
  • The trip to cut the Christmas tree is a Christmas message all by itself, capped by Miss Sook’s response to the lazy mill-owner’s wife who tries to buy the tree, who tells the soulmates that they can always get another one. No, replies Miss Sook, “There’s never two of anything.”

It was easy after that to direct my students to their own best memories, to remembrances of grandparents, of favorite gifts, of pets who’d long since left them, to ritual and tradition, to ornaments they hang on the tree with delight year after year after year, to  Christmas confections, to sights and sounds and tastes that, unbeknownst to them, had been laid down already—at 13, 14—in layers of sweetness that will forever define Christmas in their hearts. They loved writing their own memoirs—evoking images, searching for similes, reaching for symbols like the kites that would carry their stories into light air. One year, a girl named Sarah wrote and wrote and wrote. Her lists were exquisite; her images, poignant beyond what was imaginable for her age. “She’s a writer,” her friends all said.  “You should have seen her in middle school.” Indeed.

But my favorite part of the lesson came after we had talked about style, after we had talked about Sook, after we had understood the message. I would ask the students to think about the boy, about Buddy. Until now, the focus had been on Sook—her superstitions, her quirkiness, her simplicity; on Haha Jones’ sudden philanthropy; on the relatives’ insensitivity; on the humor in Queenie’s sampling the leftover whiskey.

I asked my students to think about Buddy. “Is there anyone you’ve met this semester that Buddy reminds you of?” I’d ask them. A few literal ones would scan the list of kids they’d met that semester, their first in the high school. A few caught on to the fact that I was talking  about literary characters, who, to me and to them, too, were as real as any flesh and bone teenagers in the building.

The room is quiet. The students scan their memories, open their notebooks, reflect, try to remember the characters we’ve met.

I wait.

A hand at last. A voice, so quiet. Becca ventures an answer: “Dill?”

The room stays quiet. They take it in. Then, an almost audible, collective gasp.

Yes.

She’s got it.

Oh, that is so cool.

A Christmas memory.

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