Logan’s Moving Pictures dives into memories of his Grandmother, playing Polyana, Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing, and this week’s movie: Rio Bravo!
There are people who will tell you about how certain smells trigger memories in their brain, but I’m just not one of them, never have been really. I love the smell of sugar cookies and freshly baked cinnamon rolls, but they don’t bring up memories of a happy childhood or my mother baking in the kitchen, they just make me hungry. Even the smell of popcorn doesn’t transport me to movie outings of years past, it just makes my mouth water. Instead of smells, for me it’s always been film and television; the sights and sounds of those other worlds are what send me back in time to my past.
That’s why this column has become such a burden and a joy for me. I never know what I’m going to re-live, what will be dredged up by what I’m watching this week. Even when I try to really set out to invoke a specific set of memories, I’ll still find myself amazed at what else comes up with them. And there’s probably not a film in my life that conjures up more of those memories than Rio Bravo.
I think it could be because it’s the one movie that precedes the realization of my love of cinema, similar to Star Wars. It’s something that was just always there, inevitably on somewhere in the background in almost any given week as a kid. It’s a movie that my Dad, his brothers, Bink and Glen, and most importantly, my Grandmother (we affectionately referred to her as Nanny) all loved it dearly.
It probably ran neck and neck with Dirty Dancing as her favorite film, but I think if push came to shove she’d probably have rather watched Swayze dance than see The Duke shoot it out with the Burdette’s. But, this one was certainly high on her list, and it’s one I generally revisit every year about this time, at first to remember her, and as the years have gone one to remember those we lost after her as well.
First Glen. Then Ryan. Glen’s wife, my Aunt Joann, and most recently our Uncle Bink.
Rio Bravo is a movie that I shared with every one of them. Though, I think if I got into the mechanics and plot of the movie you’d probably spend a lot of time just asking yourself “why this movie?” And unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that. I’m not even really going to discuss the movie at all, because watching it, as good as it is, isn’t about experiencing the film at all. It’s about remembering those I’ve lost, and that all begins with remembering Alice “Johnnie” Polk, my grandmother.
She passed away in 2004, on December 10th, just five days after her birthday, and while she wasn’t my first experience dealing with death as a part of life, at the time it was certainly the most impactful. She had moved to Oklahoma with my two Uncles and their families and lived out her last few years there. I didn’t get to see her after she left, and only had the occasional phone call, usually on holidays or birthdays. It’s something I still regret, but eventually, it just got too hard to make time with her that way, and when her mind started to go it was just too damn painful.
Before that though, years before her health problems started to get the best of her, there wasn’t anything I loved more than hanging out with my family in her old trailer. There were a lot of things we watched on TV in that place; Falcons football, Braves baseball, every game show that came on TV (I wish she’d lived long enough to get to see she could stream anything she wanted to watch at any time), weather, news (that TV gave me and my Uncle Bink the first report of Mickey Mantle’s death, we had just come from a late night/early morning baseball card run to the local Wal-Mart), reruns of Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith…in fact when her cabinet color TV started to go, we had a special taped episode of Andy Griffith (the Citizens Arrest episode with the feud between Barney and Gomer) that we would have to put in to get the color to come back. I’m still not sure why that worked, and it often required a little fiddling with the contrast and such, but it did. And no one could get it to work faster than my brother Ryan. And we watched Rio Bravo, a lot.
I can see her kitchen table as clearly as if it were sitting next to me. A table that saw more than its fair share of trading cards, which I’ve mentioned in the past, but just as often it found us playing games. We loved a good board game. My Grandmother’s favorite was a game called Pollyana. My dad still has the board we played on, as well as most of the dice we used. We all had our own dice…we kept them in this big, oversized glass cup she had. I can’t remember what everyone else’s dice looked like, but mine are etched into my brain like some invisible tattoo. They were red and wooden, and kind of tiny. They’d once had gold paint in the divots, but that flaked off pretty early on. THOSE were MY dice. I’m not sure if my Dad still has them or not, but it doesn’t matter, I’ll never forget what they looked like.
If it wasn’t Pollyanna, then it was probably Canasta, a game at which my Grandmother and Aunt Joann (Aunt Jody to us, actually) were UNBEATABLE. The point of that card game was never to win, it was simply to beat them. To this day I think they cheated. Occasionally we played Rummy or maybe even penny poker, but Canasta…that was one that she loved to play the most…probably because she always won…
That table also saw a lot of jigsaw puzzles. And, I have to say, of all the things I miss about that table, putting puzzles together is probably at the top of the list. For us, assembling the pieces wasn’t a race, it was more like a marathon. One we’d run over the course of a month. It wasn’t too often that there’d be more than two or three of us sitting there putting it together, but by the end of it, we’d likely all participated in its reconstruction. People came and went as they pleased in that trailer. Her door was always open. So, if there was a puzzle to be assembled, they’d sit down at the table, asking her about her day as she carefully studied the pieces, or asking her what the score of the game was as she sat on the couch watching her favorite teams play and they plugged in their own contribution. As long as you remembered to do the edges first, she didn’t care how much or how little you did. And, usually, we’d save the very last piece for her…if we didn’t lose it.
I can still see that table, so very clear in my mind. And, when I watch Rio Bravo, I’m not watching it from my bed, or the couch, or my chair. I’m watching it from that table, from those uncomfortable wooden seats, with their crappy padding. I’m playing Canasta, or Pollyana, or putting a puzzle together.
At her wake, they had a table set up, four chairs around it, but one of those chairs was tilted up and in, its neck leaning on top of the table. Back in her day that was a sign that a player had left the game and wouldn’t be returning. There was a music mix we put together, I still have a copy of it somewhere, but I don’t listen to it because it’s just too much for me. Patrick Swayze singing “She’s Like the Wind” was most certainly on there, but so were tunes from Rio Bravo. Every time I watch the movie, when Ricky, Dean, and Walter hole themselves up in that jail and start singing, I can still see the smile on my Grandmother’s face, her legs moving to the beat, hands clapping.
In her lifetime she gave a lot to the people around her, usually, her gifts were those of story or food, because, well, those were the things she liked to do, and usually that was all she had to give. But sometimes her gifts came in more difficult packages, like taking her to do her grocery shopping or having to drive all the way out to her trailer in the county just to bring her a hamburger. The last gift she ever gave, she gave at her funeral, and at the time it was of the more difficult variety.
Due to some really strange circumstances, she was, in fact, late to her own funeral. It was here, in Columbus, and so my family from OK naturally came home. In a bizarre set of circumstances her body was held up awaiting release for several days by the Oklahoma coroner, meanwhile, the entire family had reunited in Georgia. As we waited for her to get here, all of us laughing at the insanity of what was going on so as to keep from crying, we got to spend one more week, all of us, together again. All of us except her, because, well, she was stuck in Oklahoma!
That was the last gift she gave us, one more moment that she brought us all together, but it’s not my favorite. No, the best thing Alice “Johnnie” Polk ever gave me was Rio Bravo. A movie that doesn’t just bring back the memory of watching it in that tin building she called a home, but the memory of a life spent with her, the memory of what it meant to be a family. She was born on December 5th, 1929, and died five days after her 75th birthday. I remember the last conversation I ever had with her was on her birthday. I didn’t get her anything, and I didn’t even send a card, I think we all knew what was coming, and we were all preparing ourselves for it. Doesn’t matter though, nothing I ever gave her could be as wonderful as what she’d given me with Rio Bravo and the memories that this movie conjures up.