One Saturday night in August 1973, my mom and dad joined Aunt Fay and Uncle Nick on a double date to Hathaway’s drive in movie theatre in North Hoosick to see the popular gangster film The Godfather. Because they returned late, everyone was in bed, forcing them to share their thoughts about the movie the next morning. My father raved. It was brilliant, so complex and evocative of its time and place. My mom agreed; the story and characters were so realistic yet the dialogue was so full of poetry. Listening closely to the film review, my grandfather nodded thoughtfully.
My parents returned to the city later that day, leaving me upstate. The next Wednesday evening after dinner, my grandfather turned to my grandmother.
“Hey, Ruthie, let’s pack up the Peanut here and go see that movie the kids were raving about. You know, the gangster film.”
My grandmother looked up from her crocheting, frowning, and nodded slightly, yet pointedly, at me, Peanut (so nicknamed because I am the youngest grandchild), lounging on the sofa. “I don’t know. I talked to Fay about it and they say” – here she stage-whispered “the word ‘fuck’ in that movie.”
My grandfather raised his left arm as if to push away her concern. “Peanut has heard it before. She just heard it from you. Come on, let’s go.”
Grabbing sweaters we set off in my grandfather’s maroon Delta 88 the few miles to the theatre. It was dusk by the time we made the left turn by Delaney’s Hotel, and we could see that the line at Hathaway’s was so long cars were pulled over onto the side of the road, trying not to block the entrance to the gas station or Tate’s Diner as they inched forward to the box office; by the time we reached the ticket booth, The Godfather tickets had all sold out, leaving us with a Faye Dunaway and George C. Scott film about a woman oil wildcatter called Oklahoma Crude. My grandfather sighed with disappointment and turned to my grandmother. “Well?”
“We’re here now, Kenneth, no point in going home. We’ll just watch the George C. Scott movie and see the gangster show another time. I like George C. Scott. Remember how good he was in that Patton?” Her tone made me think she was placating him because, however much she had or had not enjoyed Patton, she was pretty happy that The Godfather was off the menu; she had no intention of taking her younger son’s youngest child to a movie in which dirty language was bandied about.
“All right. But we are seeing the gangster show next week,” my grandfather grumbled, handing the money to the teenage girl in the booth.
We followed the other cars into the rutted field and berthed in our allotted space. As my grandfather adjusted the silvery speaker on the driver’s side window I went to the concession stand for popcorn and soda. Returning, laden, I plopped in the middle of the back seat and leaned forward between the armrests to listen to the piped in music until the graying sky had turned a bluish-ebony and the movie could begin.
I don’t actually remember much of the film. I just know that it was going along pretty well until Faye Dunaway’s character had to explain to someone about why she felt no need of a man to help her hold onto her oil-rich land while the big oil companies plotted and schemed to steal it from her. She didn’t want a man, she announced. She was prepared to do everything a man could do in the oil fields and beyond; in fact, she concluded, “if I had a dick I could fuck myself, too!”
My grandmother gasped, then shrieked. She spun in her car seat faster than I had ever seen her move and before I realized what had happened she clamped both hands on either side of my head with a viselike grip, squeezing my brain to near pulp as she covered my ears. “Kenneth!” she howled. “That word! There’s that word!” My grandfather stared at her wordlessly for a minute, and then said softly, “Ruthie, let go of the kid.”
When she finally released my head, I reached up and tentatively tried to separate my earflaps from where they had been all but embedded in my skull. My poor grandmother. She had so liked George C. Scott that she completely forgot the salty language he had used as General Patton and, having never seen Bonnie and Clyde, had no idea who Faye Dunaway was. She was quiet for the rest of the night.
We never saw The Godfather that summer. In fact, I didn’t see it until it was released on VHS, at which point, I realized that the dialogue contains very little swearing and no character ever uttered the dreaded “fuck” at all. I don’t know whether my grandfather ever got the chance to see it, as he died before home video technology was available.
I think of my grandparents every time that movie comes on TV. Last summer, seeing it on a pay channel, I commented idly about how it always reminded me of upstate New York and my grandparents. This puzzled my father and I realized that my grandparents had never told the story, so I did. In the telling it occurred to me that it says everything there is to say about my grandmother – to me, at least. Her finer instincts to protect me were so strong, she never realized the insidiousness of the Trojan horse George C. Scott movie. Evidently, if she really wanted to keep my adolescence rated G, she should have listened to my grandfather and taken me to the gangster film.