How Grandma Met the Rat Pack

It wasn't all at once. She just happened over the years to share a moment with each of them. Took puffs off Frank's cigarette, kissed Sammy on the cheek, shook Joey's hand, watched TV with Peter, loaned Dino five bucks. Those are facts, at least as far as my family is concerned. I have my doubts, but I play my part whenever she tells the tale.

I'm stopped at a gas station, not paying much attention, thinking about the potato salad in the back seat, and whether it would spoil before I got to the cookout. There's a Negro walking by the car, so I say, 'Boy, could you put in two dollars and check the oil?' And he says, very polite, 'I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't work here.' I look up and it's Sammy Davis Jr.


My hand to God.

The Candy Man? What did you do?

I got out of the car and kissed him on the cheek. I frankly don't quite know what came over me. But he was awfully gracious, I have to say. Such a nice man.

Okay, except sometimes it's egg salad, and sometimes Sammy Davis Jr. actually pumps the gas and washes her windshield before she notices who it is. Embellishments or forgotten details? Let it go, my sister says. Why take this away from her?

Did you know that I watched the moon landing with Peter Lawford and Judy Garland in the lobby of a Holiday Inn? Peter kept asking Judy how they got those monkeys to fly in The Wizard of Oz, but she just shushed him. She wanted to see those boys bouncing around on the moon, was looking at the screen as if it were showing miracles. I couldn't have cared less. Here I am, I'm sitting with Peter Lawford and Judy Garland. We could have been watching a test pattern for all I cared.

Don't ask how Judy Garland or Peter Lawford (or Grandma for that matter) came to be in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Those details aren't part of the story. But here's a fact: Judy Garland died in June of 1969, one month before the first moon landing.

So, maybe it wasn't Judy Garland, or maybe it was another Apollo mission, but Grandma's story can't be true, at least the way she tells it.

My mother asks me what does it matter? Why do I care? But it does matter. There is one true version of events. Grandma either met the Rat Pack or she didn't, or she met some of them and not others, or she thinks she met them but she's getting confused, or she's deliberately lying to us all. You can debate it, but there's only one right answer. We're not talking moral ambiguities. These are events. They happened or they didn't.

Share a cigarette, dollface?

That's what Sinatra is supposed to have said to her. Sometimes it's in a Las Vegas elevator, sometimes it's outside a Miami nightclub, sometimes it's in a park in New York City. It's always the same line though, and they always spend the next few minutes passing a Lucky Strike back and forth. Sinatra had such small hands, Grandma says, delicate, like a woman's.

Sure I shook his hand. Why wouldn't I? It was Joey Bishop. He was the least talented of the five, as far as I'm concerned, but the only one still living. Listen, I've got nothing against the man, he just isn't funny. Never was. I told him so too. Shook his hand and told him he wasn't funny. He said to me, 'That's the first thing my wife said when we met.' That wasn't a line either. I found out later that was true.

Grandma's handwriting is so bad that to this day we don't know if Grandpa was killed by a bus or a bear. Grandma doesn't remember, and the only documentation we have of the event is her letter to my mother. This happened years ago, when Grandma and Grandpa were living in Alaska, and to my frustration, the archives of The Anchorage Daily News reveal nothing of the incident. I have showed Grandma her letter more than once, have asked her what it said, but she has no idea, seems surprised each time to find out her husband is dead.

You know, Dean Martin loved comic books and hated elevators -- and believe it or not, that's why we met. It was the lobby of an office building. The rest of his party had gone up in the elevator, but he was taking the stairs, just as he always did. He walked by a newsstand that had a comic book display, and he wanted to buy one, but he didn't have his wallet on him. That's a true sign of success, you know. You get rich and famous enough, you never have to carry a wallet. He asked me, buying a candy bar for your mother, to loan him a fin. Well of course I did, I didn't hesitate. He wrote down my name and address, promised to pay me back right away. But he never did. He died owing me those five dollars.

But none of it may have happened, I say to my mother.

So? As far as your Grandma's concerned, it's all true. If it's true in her mind, how does that change things?

It just does. It makes a difference.

Not to her.

My mother doesn't understand. No one in my family does. They just go on treating Grandma's stories as gospel, even when the gospel keeps changing, keeps turning up new holes. They don't care whether it was Judy Garland or Judy Holliday, egg salad or potato salad, a bus or a bear. One version's as good as another, and a different version next week will be just fine.

Listen, my wife says, facts aren't all they're cracked up to be. Facts will only get you so far. She places her hand on my stomach, slides it down beneath the waistband of my underwear; says, Is this a fact? Tell me, what facts will you remember about this moment? Her face is turned up towards mine, and her smile —

(I met my wife twelve years ago, backstage at a college production of 'Hamlet.' She smiled at me, and I remember thinking it was a dirty smile, and then savoring my sudden enjoyment of that phrase, dirty smile. Later that night, I slept with her roommate, a fact she has never learned.)

My wife says, What are you thinking?

I love you, I say, which is true, but as an answer to her question, it is also, quite plainly, a lie.

© 2005 Greg Tulonen

Originally published in Hampshire Life, November 25, 2005