"A Christmas Memory" is about a young boy, referred to as "Buddy," and his older cousin, who is unnamed in the story but is called Sook in later adaptations. The boy is the narrator, and his older cousin— who is eccentric and childlike — is his best friend. They live in a house with other relatives, who are authoritarian and stern, and have a dog named Queenie.
The family is very poor, but Buddy looks forward to Christmas every year nevertheless, and he and his elderly cousin save their pennies for this occasion. Every year at Christmastime, Buddy and his friend collect pecans and buy whiskey— from a scary Native American bootlegger named Haha Jones — and many other ingredients to make fruitcakes. They send the cakes to acquaintances they have met only once or twice, and to people they've never met at all, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This year, after the two have finished the elaborate four-day production of making fruitcakes, the elderly cousin decides to celebrate by finishing off the remaining whiskey in the bottle. This leads to the two of them becoming drunk, and being severely reprimanded by angry relatives.
The next day Buddy and his friend go to a faraway grove, which the elderly cousin has proclaimed the best place, by far, to chop down Christmas trees. They manage to take back a large and beautiful tree, despite the arduous trek back home.
They spend the following days making decorations for the tree and presents for the relatives, Queenie, and each other. Buddy and the older cousin keep their gifts to each other a secret, although Buddy assumes his friend has made him a kite, as she has every year. He has made her a kite, too.
Come Christmas morning, the two of them are up at the crack of dawn, anxious to open their presents. Buddy is extremely disappointed, having received the rather dismal gifts of old hand-me-downs and a subscription to a religious magazine. His friend has gotten the somewhat better gifts of oranges and hand-knitted scarves. Queenie gets a bone.
Then they exchange their joyful presents to each other: the two kites. In a beautiful hidden meadow, they fly the kites that day in the clear winter sky, while eating the older cousin's Christmas oranges. The elderly cousin thinks of this as heaven, and says that God and heaven must be like this.
It is their last Christmas together. The following year, the boy is sent to military school. Although Buddy and his friend keep up a constant correspondence, this is unable to last because his elderly cousin suffers more and more the ravages of old age, and slips into dementia. Soon, she is unable to remember who Buddy is, and not long after, she passes away.
As Buddy says later:
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing me from an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven.