I read an article today about families playing board games and card games together, and how beneficial this type of activity is to family dynamics. This article produced an avalanche of reminiscence!
(Photo: Michelle, Georgia, Don and I were playing cribbage in the kitchen at my house, 2005, Don took the photo - that white box near the lower left corner is what's left of a box of fudge, Don ate most of it :))
I have very fond memories of playing games as a family and with family members as I was growing up. As young children, we would sit around the kitchen or dining room table watching my parents and assorted aunts and uncles play poker - wild games like Baseball (3's and 9's are wild and 4 gets you an extra card); and there was almost always at least one wild-card even in "Five Card Stud." It was rare a "straight" game (with no wild cards) was called. They played for small change, and we learned the game by watching and after the end of the hand, asking questions.
We learned very quickly not to say a word or even make faces at each other while an actual hand was being played; we would generally position ourselves so that we could see one or even two players' hands! I remember some very early games, I was perhaps four, and I would fall asleep on dad's lap while they played, the hum of conversation, the slapping sounds of the cards, the laughter, the slide of coins across the table into the pot, the absolute feeling of contentment and belonging, closeness, love. Soon, my siblings and I were playing with the grown-ups and having a ball. The stakes were always small; we'd play for pennies and nickels, and winning a 50 cents pot was a big deal! There was a special really good feeling associated with those times; I never thought much about it as a child, it was just taken for granted; but looking back, part of it must be the feeling of being included in the group of adults (and therefore being special, admitted to the "high ranks" of the adults), of not being ignored, of being nurtured and appreciated. There was always lots of joshing talk and laughter, but sometimes serious conversations about politics and their "work" and such, and we soaked it all in and felt very "grown up" for being part of it all.
We also played Monopoly (lots of Monopoly) and Life, and we would play "team" Battleship. Invariably, at any family gathering, a large group would gather around a table or two and play card games and board games. The favorite game of my mother's family was penny-ante poker and my aunties would call some crazy games, with 3 and sometimes 4 wild cards! The uncles would follow along, with much laughter. The favorite game of my father's family was cribbage. My paternal grandfather taught me to play cribbage when I was 11 (he taught me about baseball then, too) and whenever that side of the family gathered together we'd have tables to play cribbage, sometimes team cribbage, while other family members would play Monopoly and poker.
At big family reunions where relatives from all over would join together at a county park, I'd move from table to table, playing crazy poker games, Monopoly and Clue, and cribbage, lots of cribbage. We also played Bocci ball - I'm pretty good because we also all learned to bowl when we were kids, that was a big deal in my hometown. You never lose the "eye," it seems...
The older I got, the more I appreciated the ritual. I would catch myself just watching the family talking, laughing, enjoying the time and the moment, and memorizing it, like a snapshot.
One of my best friends in the "old neighborhood" was Donna, and her mother and grandmother (and even, on occasion, her father) loved playing Canasta. They taught me how to play the game so I could join in because I spent a lot of time over at their house; often there would be Donna, her mom, her dad's mom and me playing Canasta around their kitchen table. I don't remember how to play Canasta anymore and I haven't seen Donna since she married and moved away in the early 1970's, but I do remember many afternoons playing cards with the Berne family. It was Grandma Berne who taught me how to play Gin. I was 13 and she and I sat at the Berne kitchen table smoking cigarettes (she smoked Camels and I smoked Salem Lights) as she taught me the game and tried to helped me with my atrocious "French" accent (it was my 'foreign language' in junior high and high school). I don't remember much French and I never did learn how to properly "roll" my ‘r’s’, but I still remember how to play Gin and I remember Grandma Berne, with her thick glasses that she only put on when she absolutely had to, her real French-Canadian accent, her furs, her expensive perfumed scent, her high-heeled pumps and black leather handbags that always seemed to hold the most wonderful things, and her perfectly groomed dark auburn coif, very 1940's and quite elegant. And bright red lipstick.
Now we're all grown up; I'm a "great aunt" (eek!), my sisters are grandmothers, my mother who loved playing 500 rummy with us at night around the kitchen table while dad was at his second-shift job is a great-grandmother. My youngest niece is seven; my oldest nieces and nephews are married and have children of their own! The family is even bigger now than it was when I was a child. We are more scattered now, too, and it seems harder these days to have those big family get-togethers than when I was a kid. But we still do have get-togethers, it's just not all of us at one time and place. We’ll be having a get-together tomorrow, to celebrate my mom's 80th birthday party and (weather permitting), having a cook-out. I’m sure that after we eat, someone will break out a deck of cards and we'll gather around and play some of those crazy poker games my mom still loves. My mom grew up in a family of seven sisters; four of them have passed away, the torch from that generation has been and is being passed to my generation. This makes me sad - and scared.
Because there are so many of us, the family gathering tomorrow is an "everyone bring a dish" event. I am the designated "bringer of the jello." I am grateful for the fact that the sister who suggested I do the jello doesn't remember the debacle from a few years ago when - for some mysterious reason - my jello failed to "set"...