My grandmother -- who died yesterday after enduring a host of ailments for longer than anyone should've and with a quiet resolve few could've mustered -- always reminded me of Bette Davis. Not in attitude; she was a kind and deferential woman in her role as Grandma Pat and was without a trace of Davis' acidity or self-importance. But in the early days of my life (the mid-'80s), she bore a slight resemblance to that great player of unsympathetic characters.
It was the eyes, I think: wide, walnut-shaped. And the lid and eyebrow area: a weighty crescent (I'm loathe to say "droopy" or "sagging" because that denotes lethargy, of which she had none, but you know what I mean). The eyes were the focal point of a woman who was once full-figured and statuesque. A stroke or two changed her appearance dramatically and the "extended stay" in a nursing home in the last chapter of her life dulled her features. In my head I'm picturing a photo of her, my grandfather and me when I was maybe 1 year old, and the Pat I saw this past Christmas was not the same Pat who's in that photo. Life has a way of wearing you down, I guess. If it can wear the immortal Bette Davis down (and boy did it ever), it can wear anyone down. I wish I had that photo in my possession so I could post her opposite Davis.
Anyway. The great thing about memory is also the great thing about movies: We can envision people in the prime of their lives, in moments of clarity and beauty. We can afford the dead a certain immortality. Davis has been dead for almost 20 years, but I can pop in All About Eve and suddenly she's here, in the now now now: 42 years old, crackling with life, enduring. We can skip the memories of her when she was old and infirm and confused, making those embarrassing appearances on awards and talk shows.
And as I remember Davis poised on the stairs in All About Eve, so too do I remember Grandma Pat in those quick, slight moments. Screen captures, if you will: how she used to wear these flannel skirts held together with a massive safety pin, how she made dark chocolate mini turkeys for Thanksgiving and how she always kept a tin filled with M&Ms, how I distinctly remember when she told me her favorite color was yellow (and how my 8-year-old self was fascinated by that choice, since I was convinced everyone's favorite was boring old blue), how her drink of choice was a Manhattan, how she grew mint in the backyard and gave us stale bread to place around the nearby St. Francis bird fountain, the way the stroke made her seem distant and alien but then how she tenderly and covertly stroked my grandfather's thigh last Thanksgiving as they sat side by side.
Last night I went across the street to hear some bluegrass. I ordered a Manhattan, winced with each sip -- I see now why she liked it -- and left the two cherries speared and uneaten.