When you call my grandparents’ house in Amarillo, the answering machine still sounds, “This is the Smith residence. Leave a message, and we MIGHT call you back.” Even now, nearly a year since my Pawpaw passed away, his sarcastic, gruff voice still makes me laugh. During that same time, I waited for one movie in particular. True Grit.
I covered the filming of this western re-make in central Texas for KXAN. It was one of the last topics my Pawpaw and I discussed. Last Christmas, we sat in his living room, chatting about his affection for John Wayne. The original True Grit won the Duke an Academy Award in 1969, so Pawpaw was particularly interested in this conversation. It was quite unusual for him to be so talkative about anything. Even before his illness, he was not the most expressive man.
Mumbling through many of his words and cutting the dialogue short were common traits with Pawpaw. What he would say was often edgy and full of wit. As a child, I remember him calling people who irritated him a “suck-egg mule.” And, to go along with his seemingly rugged demur, in response to someone’s “I love you,” he would spit out “Same to ya!” We really knew what he meant. It was just all part of the character Joe Smith had built for himself.
That character came back up the following Christmas, our first without him. After our chat and my television coverage of True Grit, I was definitely looking forward to its release on that holiday. The original had aired just a few days before, and I downloaded the audio book by Charles Portis for the drive back to Oklahoma.
My parents were also anticipating the movie. We bought our tickets beforehand for the little theater in Shawnee, waiting in line outside in the biting cold to enter. The theater was packed, and we had to separate to secure seats. Mom and Dad sat in one row next to each other, and I sat in the row just in front of them. Mom kept messing up my hair and asking if I was okay up there all alone.
After a few minutes of sitting in the darkness with a restless crowd of movie-goers, the theater manager entered, and the lights came on. Apparently, there was a problem with the bulb in the theater projector, a problem that was unable to be fixed any time soon. Refunds were available, and there was always the possibility of tomorrow’s showing. Surprisingly, I wasn’t upset. Another day wouldn’t hurt.
The theater was considerably less crowded the day after Christmas. Mom, Dad, and I were able to share a bag of popcorn, as we were all sitting together on round two. An older man approached my left and asked if the two seats beside me were taken. I indicated they were available, so he and a little boy I assumed was his grandson sat down. It made me smile a bit, thinking about watching the movie that gave my Pawpaw and me one of the best conversations we’d ever had. It was a noteworthy breakthrough in communication and certainly a special final memory of one’s grandfather.
Throughout the movie, I was struck by how much Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn reminded me of Pawpaw. The sharp dialogue. The masked emotion. The subtle humor. It was like a little bit of Joe Smith was alive right there on the screen. Perhaps I was wanting such a coincidence too much because of my closeness to the subject.
The movie was exceptional, one of the best I had seen in a long time. Seeing Granger and Blanco, Texas, was awesome. It was truly worth the wait, even that additional day. As we left the theater, I noticed my parents were not standing beside me. I turned back to see Mom wiping some tears from her eyes. Dad put his hand on her shoulder, and I noticed his bottom lip shaking slightly. Mom looked at me and said, “Sorry. It’s just…it reminded me of Dad so much.” I smiled as we passed the movie poster with Bridge’s photo on the way out. “Same to ya, Pawpaw.”