Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I learned how to play Scrabble at a bridge table in Henniker, New Hampshire which is where we escaped the ravages of Bronx summers, where adults in our family gathered beneath a birch tree to mark everyone’s names at the top of a score pad.
My Uncle Harry, often sat down on a lawn chair to pick his tiles wrapped in a white towel, water beading from his ample torso. He’d come from swimming in Dudley Pond, about a mile walk from the farmhouse, a place that was resplendent with frogs, water moccasins, and bloodsuckers. We were from the Bronx and used to scores of cockroaches and rats, so we swam and rowed undaunted by these country creatures before returning through fields of Black-Eyed Susan and Goldenrod to the Scrabble board.
”Let’s play,” they said.
Everyone, meaning my mother, Uncle Harry, Aunt Jeannette, and anyone else who might be there, sometimes my father who took the Greyhound bus to join us on the weekend, sat in their designated spot around a bridge table and hoped for a good selection of consonants and syllables as they selected their first round of letters. Carefully, they picked their hand from the top of the dark purplish Scrabble box. Sometimes they used a brown paper bag which saved them from having to turn the letters face down. Then there was silence. The point was to keep a poker face, not to give away any information about the hand. Next, they placed the tiles in their wooden trays, smooth and oiled from continued use, turning each letter so that its point value displayed in the lower left corner of each square.
My mother squinched her eyebrows together throughout the game, trying to use all of her seven tiles to net 50 extra points. My Uncle Harry wanted to win by any means necessary, a cutthroat player who included humiliation in his bag of tricks. Aunt Jeannette, the artist in the family, liked to arrange the tiles with her long bejeweled fingers, moving them around with no apparent purpose. My father loved to discover new words less interested in winning and frequently called upon the dictionary for validation until cries of, “You’re making that up,” stilled his creative urge.
”But it is a word,” he said.
Sometimes they burst out in Hungarian expletives, which we children, raised as English speakers, could not understand. But as I sat at their knees, I learned the game. First, it was necessary to understand the playing field, a square broken into smaller squares, 15 by 15, with a star dead in the middle. Radiating squares of light and dark blue eased into pink to indicate a double word score. Red squares marked that most hallowed of all places, the triple word score, which my relatives pondered for half hours at a time, trying to squeeze their letters into that corner of the board much like Cinderella’s sisters tried to force their ungainly feet into a glass slipper.
When the game got slow, I gazed at the area called “Letter Frequency,” a code on the left side of the board. The code indicated the number of tiles for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, the letter “E” being the most frequent at 12 tiles. Numbers and letters converged. Uncle Harry understood that convergence. He kept track of the number of letters on the board. I circled the table and hung at each adult’s elbow knowing the truth of what they had in their hands. They taught me the rules. Hold on to a “U” because you may pick the “Q” and you’ll need that letter to do anything. They blocked openings so no one could worm their way into a triple word score. The “S” was a special because you could build two words at once. Nothing like a plural for extra points. And then there were blanks that could become any letter at all.
They knew so many words, fluent in their adopted language. Until I was old enough to join them at the table, I freely offered my gifts of cat and dog and couldn’t understand when my mother choose not to use them. When she really got stuck she’d say, “I can’t do anything.”
“Nothing? You’re the one who used all seven letters two hands ago.”
“No. I really can’t.”
“Come on. You must be able to do something!”
“Are you sure?”
“Go ahead then.”
which signaled defeat and acceptance in the same breath. My mother’s predicament was a common one: No matter how great the word you had in your hand, it didn’t count unless you were able to put it down on the table. Personal creativity and talent was one thing, but practical opportunities were another.
They are gone now, adults who never revealed their pasts. What I know about them, I learned through playing Scrabble. In some important ways, they are like blanks for me and I keep making them up, running them through to the dictionary of my mind. Maybe it was because they had watched the Holocaust from this side of the Atlantic and the horror of what they saw which made their pasts too painful.
Or maybe it was because they all died before I had a chance of speaking with them as an adult.
Maybe they are all gathered around a bridge table, still playing the game that they loved.