Posts Tagged ‘South Florida’

Usually around this time of year I take down my old, much-used copy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories” and read Truman Capote’s short story about his childhood in Alabama called “A Christmas Memory.” This is the story about his simple elderly cousin, who calls him Buddy, and the fruitcakes they make for strangers each year in late November.

“It’s fruitcake weather,” his friend says on a clear, cold coming-of-winter morning, and out they go to search for windfall pecans and to buy supplies to make their fruitcakes. These mornings feel like fruitcake weather to me, a coming of winter, coming of Christmas kind of weather that reminds me of my Florida childhood, of aunts and uncles visiting, and my round white-haired grandmother baking in her kitchen.

We did not have pecan trees, but there were orange and tangerine trees, and guava trees out by the fence. It is easy to climb a tree and pluck a ripe mango, and eat it with the juice dripping down your chin while your legs dangled over a thick branch down into space. Back in the little house the women relatives are getting Sunday dinner and my older sister is setting the big oak table. The men smoking pipes or cigars on the porch ask my father how the fishing has been this season in Whitewater Bay. My father, who runs a charter boat out of Flamingo down at the tip of the Florida mainland, takes fishermen from up north out to catch snook and tarpon and sometimes the giant grouper, which in those less enlightened days we called Jewfish.

At the time I am thinking of I am five years old, listening in on the elders, who seem ancient but cannot be much more than thirty or thirty-five. Even my great uncle, my grandfather’s younger brother, is only in his fifties, my own age today. Uncle Ernest has white hair and a round, jolly face. He is married to a horse faced, frightening woman with a braying voice, my aunt Amy. I am named for my great uncles, Ernest and Walter, though Walter, the charming and flamboyant brother, died years before I was born.

It’s fruitcake weather, and I remember my older brother hopping out of bed to light the wood burning stove in the living room to take the early morning chill off the air. He is eleven, a fierce warrior with palmetto swords and homemade bamboo pea shooters. To me he is the soul of competence; he can plait a lanyard out of palmetto fronds, whistle between his fingers, steer a boat, and scale and gut a fish.

My sister, who is nine, is the teacher. She reads to me from her library books about Lancelot and Sir Galahad and corrects my grammar. I am her student and the actor in her dramas. She would like to teach me to be a knight like Galahad, but the best I can do is learn to bow and gallop around like a boy centaur, swinging my palmetto branch sword.

In Florida winters, I lie barefoot in the grass and watch the clouds scoot across the sky. Christmas is coming, and I have studied the toy section of the Sears mail order catalog until the pages have worn thin. My mother measures us for pants and sweaters, and writes our sizes down on the order forms, but I am hoping for either the gigantic toy gas station with cars and gas pumps and little attendants dressed in white uniforms, or the tall castle with turrets and flags flying and knights on horseback with lances or swords held steady.

In “A Christmas Memory,” the young Buddy’s true childhood ends at the age of seven or eight when he is taken away from his beloved friend, sent away to military school, leaving his cousin and her dog Queenie to carry on their fruitcake making alone. My Florida childhood ended at about the same age, when we moved to the bleak wintry landscape of Tennessee, leaving behind my grandmother and the fruit orchard, the bamboo thicket and the palmetto swords.

It’s a coming of winter morning fifty years later. The ingredients for half a dozen fruitcakes are piled in a bowl in the kitchen. My daughters come downstairs to bring me hand colored paper angels to decorate my desk. It’s fruitcake weather, and my childhood is reborn in their eyes.

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