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Constance Alexander: Celebrating simple gifts this holiday by sharing “A Christmas Memory”

If the third time is truly a charm, the Calloway County Public Library can take pride in launching a holiday ritual that is taking firm hold on the community. For the third year in a row, the library is inviting volunteers to come together for a program called, “Simple Gifts,” an oral reading of a favorite holiday story. This year, community reading is scheduled for Tuesday, December 17, at 6 pm. The event is free and open to the public, and there is still time to sign up to read.

This year’s selection is the Truman Capote classic, “A Christmas Memory.” So far, nineteen people –representing an array of service organizations and first responders from city and county — have come forward as volunteer readers. In addition, members of speech teams from the local high schools have offered to read some of the most memorable scenes from the timeless story.

“A Christmas Memory” begins when it is “fruitcake weather.” Mornings have turned cold and quiet, as the birds have gone south. And when the church bells ring, the sound cuts through loud and clear in the still winter air.

A seven-year-old boy named Buddy and his elderly cousin, Miss Sook Falk, have thirty fruitcakes to bake and send to friends from near and far. Besides that challenge, there is a tree to be chopped down, dragged home on foot, and decorated on a Depression-era budget. Last of all are the homemade presents, including kites that the unlikely pair will fly on Christmas Day.

Working from dawn to dusk every day to keep their rite of winter going, Buddy and the old lady are accompanied on most tasks by a beloved orange and white rat terrier named Queenie. They scrimp all year to amass a Fruitcake Fund, which they stash “in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under the bed.”

Their savings are guarded with great care, except for Saturdays, when “the boy is allowed ten cents to go to the picture show.”

One episode in the tale that inspires smiles and even outright guffaws is the trek Buddy and his cousin take to visit Mr. Haha Jones. Since Alabama law at that time forbade the sale of whiskey, it is necessary to brave the forbidding Mr. Jones to secure some of his finest whiskey.

“Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?” he asks.

When he hears their mission is to make fruitcakes, he snaps, “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”

Throughout the story, Queenie, the feisty terrier, is a presence. The afternoon of Christmas Eve, the boy and Sook Falk scrape up enough change to get Queenie a “good gnawable beef bone” from the butcher.

“The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.”

As the story reaches its end, audiences instinctively know this is one of those bittersweet memories.

“This is our last Christmas together. Life separates us,” Buddy says.

Thereafter, he endures military school and summer camps. “Home is where my friend is,” he explains. “And there I never go.”

No matter how many times I read “A Christmas Memory,” I lose it when Buddy gets this letter from his cousin: “Yesterday Jim Macy’s horse kicked Queenie bad,” she wrote. “Be thankful she didn’t feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson’s pasture where she can be with all her Bones. “

“A Christmas Memory” is filled with poignant moments like that, rendered in writing rich with description. The final scene, on Christmas morning, is the last shared by Buddy and Sook Falk. It is a day so splendid, the old woman exclaims, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Review copies of “A Christmas Memory” are available for checkout at the Circulation Desk of the Calloway County Public Library at 710 Main Street in Murray. Volunteers who want to sign up to read should contact Mrs. Sandy Linn at the library, 270-753-2288. The website is www.callowaycountylibrary.org.

An article about the story and its impact on one family is online at www.npr.org.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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