Quality works of art can stick with you for a day, a week or longer, but there are a rare few that inspire a personal, long-term relationship. Truman Capote's short story A Christmas Memory belongs in the latter category for me.
Capote's beautifully rendered language and characters capture a time and region that echoes my experience growing up in Eastern Kentucky. The story's themes poignantly address values that I hold dear: that it is better (and easier) to create than to consume and that an individual's worth and dignity are not tied to a bank statement.
It is also the kind of story that is made better by being read aloud. The words on the page are beautiful, no doubt, but the words on the air are music.
This year, The Woodford Theatre is reviving the stage adaptation of the story for a one-night-only as part of its "Something Extra" series.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between Buddy, a 7-year-old boy, and his best friend, a distant cousin in her 60s who is "still a child." Living in the rural South during the Depression, Buddy and his best friend inhabit the lowest rung on the ladder in not only society at large but their own family, coldly and anonymously referred to as "relatives" and later, with a bitter irony, as "Those Who Know Best."
The duo are utterly poor and powerless. Money is something that is not so much earned as just happens to them. Maybe a relative will offer a spare dime or nickel, maybe they'll win a contest, maybe people will pay to see a three-legged chicken. With a small coin purse kept hidden under a floorboard, the pair save enough to fund a magical Christmas, which takes months of planning and all of their money.
It involves buying whiskey and accidentally getting drunk before making fruitcakes and sending them to their perceived allies, including President Franklin Roosevelt. It involves chopping down their own tree in a secret forest and decorating it with shapes cut from construction paper and cotton picked in August. They make gifts for each other. Buddy's best friend has an epiphany about God revealing himself in the lives they live now and not the hereafter.
Capote captures a powerful truth that is in terrible danger of being forgotten: The poor often experience dignity, even a kind of majesty, that eludes Those Who Know Best.
Buddy's relatives do not share the tender and magical world that he and his best friend inhabit, even though they live in the same house. They do not experience the sublime among the simple, the enchantment among the ordinary. They lack inspired determination.
Despite their lowly social standing, it is not young Buddy and his elderly cousin who deserve pity in this story. It is everyone else, those who think meaning and happiness must be bought and striven for in a hypothetical future rather than creatively cultivated in the life you already have.
I experienced this lesson first-hand when I was a small child in Eastern Kentucky.
The year the steelworkers' union went on strike, my grandfather wasn't able to buy me a Christmas present. So he made one. A toy truck he carved out of a log, with metal washers for wheels, it remains one of my greatest treasures. There is nothing made of plastic or built by another's hands that will mean as much to me as that toy.
Making a living is better than earning a living; that's one reason I love the theater so much. Theater people think in terms of making versus buying, of creating versus commandeering. If a script calls for a sailboat or a dragon or a giant on stilts or a replica of a Model T, designers don't sit around and wonder how they can buy what they need. Who has the budget for that? They make it.
Never let the perception of limited resources strangle the determined imagination.
Capote's story does something at the end that I was taught in English classes to avoid: It takes a hard turn in tone.
The zenith of Buddy's Christmas happiness briefly descends into coming-of-age sadness, loss and isolation. If you don't tear up a little bit reading it, you're not human.
But sadness, too, the aching loss of childhood — these are things that can be used for creating as well. The knife that carves the wood. Letting life hurt you, losing loved ones and never being the same again. There is something beautiful that can be made from all of that. Capote made a story. What will you do?
IF YOU GO
A Christmas Memory
What: The Woodford Theatre's staged reading of Truman Capote's 1956 short story
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 23
Where: The Woodford Theatre, Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $10 adults, $6 students. Available at (859) 873-0648 or woodfordtheatre.com.
A Christmas Memory has been adapted for the screen at least twice, and both are available on DVD: an award-winning 1967 version starring Geraldine Page and narrated by Capote; and a lesser-regarded 1997 version starring Patty Duke and Piper Laurie.
AS A BOOK
A Christmas Memory is available in a Modern Library edition that also includes the stories One Christmas and The Thanksgiving Visitor ($15.95) and an illustrated 50th anniversary edition from Random House ($18.99).
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.