April 20th poem

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rules of the Game 

When I was a young child, my mother played endless games of rummy with me because she read that card games make children smart.  She hated games, but I didn't know that at the time.  She was barely more than a child herself then, but already setting up conditions and interested in outcomes, already a social scientist with a qualitative bent.  Interested in developing my humanness.

Early in elementary school we played Mastermind.  One person set up a code of colored pegs, and the other person had to guess their order through a process of elimination.  I learned that if I was patient and went through every permutation in my mind, I could win.  I'm not sure I'd have the patience for it now, or the interest.

For a time in middle childhood, I was passionate about backgammon-- the counting, the focus, the satisfying slides and clicks of the pieces.  I haven't played it in years.  I couldn't tell you the rules.

A friend of my mom's from her hometown reports that once he and my biological father, David,  made a trip to see us when my mother was in grad school.  David was reportedly disturbed that I cheated at a board game we all played, worrying that I'd turn out to be a bad person.  I play by a pretty decent set of rules now, but as a child I could be wily.  The visitors came and went, and I retain only the dimmest memory.  I didn't know then that my father was my father.  

Rolling dice with Anna to see who would go first in Monopoly the first time she came to my house, we got the same number ten times in a row.  We were thirteen, and she would be my closest friend for approximately the next ten years.  Maybe more.

My great-grandmother Eva loved games.  She would dress up and go to someone's house to sit at a card table for hours, talking, playing, and probably drinking.  Sometimes she would even spend a few days with friends.  This was my grandmother's mother-in-law, and she is the one who tells me about it.  At that time, my grandmother worked as a clerk at a bank and left her small children with Eva, who was not an attentive babysitter, which arrangement threatened to derange the poor young mother's mind.  She still speaks of Eva's great sense of style with admiration.  But I have never known my grandmother to play games.

Flicking pennies into an empty jar on top of the TV with Ross in graduate school in a Philadelphia row house.  Another time he learned that I really can't catch a ball, and he had me stand in the cobbled alley and catch a football fifty times in a row.  If I missed the catch, we started over at one. (Imagine a very tall poet who had been a college athlete.  And ... me.)  For a while, I was part of the gang.  Next door, Peg lived alone despite the dementia, and we talked to her about her childhood when she wandered outside.  Was there something about the Prohibition and hiding in a coal bin?  Ross found her crying in the alley once about when her mother was coming back, and we took her back inside.  In her kitchen, everything was labeled.  Clock.  Coffeemaker.  Stove.  Her daughter came to check on her during the day, but after a while Peg no longer lived there.  This was after Mark found her out in the snow in her nightgown, at the end of the alley, waiting for someone. 


Over Thanksgiving, illness and looming mortality.  Playing a word association game with family, our minds slide away from the clues that speak of death and misfortune.  For now, at least, we are here around the table together, focused on the same game. 

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