Growing up, my parents used to play a game with some of their friends while I played with the other kids, or as I got older, watched the other kids. I was always curious about the game, and wanted to play, but always told I wasn’t old enough.
I can’t help but recall this every time my mother-in-law or my wife takes out the playing cards with a black bird on the backs of every card. (Aside: mother-in-law is such a misnomer for our not so lawful marriage). There are cards with numbers in black, green, yellow, and red, and there is a bird card.
He or she seems to look up at me, ready to trick me again. Peering at me and ready to mock me and my truly futile efforts to win or to at least play well.
Deanna, her mother, and I have only played a handful of times, and it is usually spaced out by weeks or months.
Last Sunday, we visited my mother and grandmother, and then for dinner, we made some turkey burgers and invited Deanna’s mother over to eat and to play Rook if she wanted.
Of course she did. (imagine that with a slight tone of sarcasm and a pinch of worry and embarrassment because I never remember how to play.)
We exchanged some recipes after dinner and had a few good laughs, then I took our boxer/hound mix, Izzie, outside for a walk.
I came inside to find Deanna and her mom sitting at our vintage green Formica kitchen table, poised and shuffling the cards, and with a pad and pen to keep score.
However, not only do they keep score, they keep scores. There is a record of who won every game I think they ever played. And now my embarrassing totals join the ranks.
As I sat down, I asked to be reminded how to play – though nothing they ever say makes since to me when it comes to this game’s instructions. It always takes a few deals for me to think I have it, the deal when I bid on the nest and get it and “go set,” and then the next few deals to recover, and then I actually understand how to play. Then the game is over, and I am far behind.
Sunday night followed the same routine. I was careful with my bidding and then I made a gutsy move – only this time, I really did it. I was in the negative, and when I say in the negative, I mean by a hundred, while the other two were neck and neck for the win at 500 in the positive. I’m not usually a sore loser, but I felt like one after that game, and even during it. I wanted to say “Okay, well thanks for coming. I have to get ready for work tomorrow.” I wanted to give Deanna some secret signal, so maybe she could do it.
I looked over at Deanna, and she was smiling. Her eyes were bright, and she had a child-like glow as she began shuffling the cards and asked her mom to stay for another game. I looked at Juanita, and her eyes had that same bright expression.
As D shuffled the cards, something happened that also happens every time we play. They began to talk and tell stories. Stories of playing this game with friends. Then stories of playing this game with family, with Deanna’s grandparents, after holidays and get-togethers, around the kitchen table
a Formica kitchen table
positioned where we have it
in the very kitchen that was once D’s grandparents’
and is now ours.
They laughed heartily about how granddad used to bid anything just so he could see what was in the nest. They laugh with tears in their eyes about how grandmom would say “caw! caw!” (mimicking the sounds of a crow) when she had the bird card. About how before Deanna was allowed to play, grandmom would ask D to spy and then let her know who had the bird. About how D sat in her aunt’s lap or her mom’s lap to learn how to play. About how no one from church could come over because Jolene (grandmom) would cuss when she wasn’t doing well – “well, shit shit double shit.”
I realized in those few moments, that this game is not about this game or keeping score; nor is it about winning or “bettering” someone else. Not for them.
For them, it is about memories and family and laughter. It is a way to be with loved ones again who have passed on, through remembering and connecting.
I love hearing those stories. I love living in the house where Jolene laughed, decorated the house with Santa things at Christmastime, and made Deanna feel so incredibly loved, that D called her “mom.” And where Gus made moonshine (the best around, of course), wore overalls, and smiled out of the corner of his mouth.
I feel connected to them when I see their pictures and feel the wooden floors beneath my feet. I feel honored to live in a house rich with history even before D’s grandparents came to own the place. I feel more connected with Juanita.
I feel more connected with Deanna.
And I find more of her to love and cherish.
We resumed playing, starting a new game, and this time, I just relaxed and enjoyed the stories as they continued through the night. I laughed and smiled and found myself falling in love with D even more.
I won the game for the first time that night, but it doesn’t matter.
What matters is my score joined the scores of Jolene, Gus, and “good ol’ Uncle Max.” That I am connected and part of this family, just as I am part of my family I grew up with.
That Deanna and I connected even more, and that this connection will pass on to our children when we teach them to play.
(But not until they are old enough).