I have written briefly in earlier posts about the place of games in our lives — in the post about jargon using the word game Scrabble as an example; in the post about playing cribbage with a patient, quoting from a student’s written paper on her early clinical experience. When I think about the games in my life, I think primarily of the people who played the games with me. Oh, the games themselves were important, too — appealing to my admittedly competitive spirit. But it’s my partners and playmates in those games that dominate my memories.
My sister, Eleanor, was 3 years older than I, so I grew up following her lead in our daily lives. Playing games together was a big part of those routines — Old Maid, Authors, Rook, Monopoly, Pirate and Traveler, Canasta, Uncle Wiggly, Go to the Head of the Class, Parcheesi, Checkers, Jacks. Jacks we played by the hour — on the fireplace hearth, on the wood floor in the front hall, outside on the back cement stoop. For each session, we worked our way up through the ranks of ever harder feats with the little red ball and the steely jacks. I only actually remember the names of a few of those levels of play, e.g., “Onesies,” Twosies”, “Around the World” and “Eggs in the Basket.” But I know there were many, many more levels that kept us busy all those long hours — starting each “hand” with one jack at a time, then two jacks, and etc.
For a number of years, when I was 10 or 12 years old, I played ping pong every night after supper in the basement with my Dad. I got quite good at the game over time, although I actually don’t think I ever beat my Dad. I remember fighting back tears of frustration during many of those games, as I went over and over again to the far back (and dark) corner of the basement by the washing machine to retrieve the little white ping pong ball that I had missed. During one of those years, when I went to a summer camp for a week in northern Wisconsin, I played in a camp-wide ping pong tournament and I won! That was a big moment, and my name was entered on a wall plaque that recorded winners over the years. Sometimes I think back to that accolade and wonder if the plaque with my name is still on the wall in the main lodge — or if the camp is even still there.
When I was in middle and high school (U.S. education in the teen years), I was introduced to group sports like volleyball and basketball. When I say I was “introduced to group sports,” I mean, really, that I was just barely introduced to group sports. There was so little offered for girls to be involved in, as compared to boys, that, in retrospect, girls’ physical education was really quite laughable. There was a sort of after-school program of games that were held — not in the standard high school gymnasium — but in the much smaller gym in the middle school. I distinctly remember one day in after-school basketball, I was really “hot.” It seemed like I could never miss — I made field goals and free throws, over and over. Since then, I have always understood how players can have remarkably good days as well as remarkably bad days in their games. I marvel at the equal opportunities in sports that are mandated now in the educational systems of my own and many other countries. And I shake my head in bewilderment sometimes, wondering why we stood by and accepted the totally unequal opportunities for girls and boys that were present in my day.
When our own children were growing up, I played endless board games and card games with them — especially in the evenings. Many of the games were ones I had played with my sister, but, of course, new games came on the scene too — Pounce, Hand and Foot, Battleship, Trouble, Aggravation, Clue, Risk. And now that our granddaughters are growing up, the games have changed again — dramatically — with all the online games and activities that are available instantly. Some of the old favorites like War and Go Fish and Crazy Eights, however, never seem to die out.
Scrabble continues to remain one of my absolute favorites, though, with a long history in the family. I belong to the Madison Scrabble Club now, in my retirement, and, although I am only a moderately good player, I never tire of the game and am always ready for the next one. But it’s not just me. My sister was a regional Scrabble champion in Illinois, the first woman to ever hold that title. She and I played Scrabble most every opportunity we had when we were visiting each other. I still have the Scrabble score sheet of our last game together, written in her beautiful penmanship, played in 1993, about a year before she died. By some absolute fluke, I won that game — 441 to 343. And we each scored a bingo, using all the letters on our racks. That must have been a “remarkably good day” for me.
My brother, too, loved Scrabble. Lanny and my sister-in-law Jan began playing Scrabble regularly in the mid-1970s when they were given a travel set to take with them on a trip. Jan told me that they played 7,157 games total in the years between then and when my brother died this spring. Each of the more than seven thousand games was duly tallied on the inside of the cover of the box. Of all those games, Jan won 3,580 games and Lanny won 3,577. Night after night across those years, they broke out the Scrabble for a game to end their day. There must have been a sort of comfort — an “all’s right with the world” feeling — to be able to close the day together in this familiar way.
Just a couple weeks ago, on July 21 of this year, the Sunday New York Times Magazine had an article written by a journalist name of Riff about games and competitiveness in his family across the years. At the end of his article, he expressed a thought that fits well with the experiences of my family. Riff said, “We play games so that we know we’re on the same team, no matter who wins, no matter what.” For Eleanor and me, we knew we were on the same team for Scrabble, no matter who won, no matter what. And for Lanny and Jan, they too knew they were on the same team, no matter who won, no matter what.
Let the games begin . . . and end.