Of Truman Capote and the smell of Christmas trees…

Many years ago–is it really that long ago?!–a dear friend moved to California to pursue a dream.  One dream led to another and she found herself teaching a group of inner city kids about all kinds of things they had never experienced:  great literature, drama (the theatrical kind…I believe they already had seen plenty of the other kind) and classical music while they read.  So far from her Alabama home and her roots, it was almost like missionary work to bring glimpses of wider horizons to children inhabiting in a larger city, but a smaller world than the one from which she came.

California is a long way from North Alabama…and never more so than during the holiday season.  My friend was having a pretty rough time of it and being unable to come home for Christmas just made it worse.  I decided to send a bit of home to her.

For years, my mother has made the most beautiful fresh greenery wreaths in the world.  That year, I had her make one just for my friend.  It was large and heavy and the people at UPS looked at me like I was nuts when I asked them to build a box around it and send it all the way to California.  It was ridiculously expensive to do that.  I felt compelled to do so anyway.  I had it shipped to her in care of the school’s address so it wouldn’t “disappear” from her front step while she was at work.

She hung it in her classroom and called to tell me of all the commotion it caused.  People came from all over the school to see what brought the scent of Christmas in the South all the way across the country.  It absolutely permeated the whole hall and was, she said, the perfect addition to her planned reading for the season.  The lush and pungent greenery brought a whole new atmosphere to the reading of Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory” to students who had never been outside the city, much less to evergreen forests to search out their own trees for celebrating Christmas.

I was glad to hear that so many were able to enjoy the wreath and thrilled that it could enhance the reading experience for kids who had never been challenged in such a way before my friend arrived in their world.  The real payoff for me, however, was the joy in my friend’s voice.  That was worth every penny spent and then some.

God bless the educators who go out of their way and out of their comfort zones to share knowledge and possibilities for the future with young minds who so desperately need to know there are other options than just the ones they’ve seen!  Teachers, your gifts are far more valuable than you are often told.  Thank you for sharing your lives so those you teach can have better ones.

Exerpt from Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory”:

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat’s ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. “We’re almost there, can you smell it, Buddy?” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree’s virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree and where did it come from? “Yonderways,” she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops and the rich mill owner’s lazy wife leans out and whines: “Giveya twobits cash for that ol tree.” Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: “We wouldn’t take a dollar.” The mill owner’s wife persists. “A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That’s my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one.” In answer, my friend gently reflects: “I doubt it. There’s never two of anything.”

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