Games and Dolls

I don’t remember having many toys. Books were my toys and the magazines dug from missionary barrels or sent by our Grand Rapids family. These magazines were my sole connection to typical American children, whom I knew only through pictures and stories in Highlights for Children and Jack and Jill. I read every page of the children’s magazines, working the puzzles, cutting things out, but I went straight to the last page of my mother’s McCall’s to find the newest outfit for Betsy McCall. I loved paper dolls, which lightly fit my hand and slipped easily into my day dreams. I was content with them until the day I found a small ad offering a doll with hair that could be washed and combed. The ad did not mention a price.

I don’t remember ever coveting a toy, but this doll I had to have. How could I, here on the other side of the world, possibly get it? I must have asked Mother, who suggested I write to the company to inquire how much it was. I doubted there would be any response and even if there was, surely such a doll would cost too much, but I did as she suggested. It seemed as if years passed before I received a response, but one day, a package arrived, for ME! I still can feel my excitement and astonishment as I unpacked not just the pictured doll with blond washable hair, but another as well, and hey! There were also four small pre-Barbies with real-looking locks. They couldn’t have been actual Barbies, which Mattel didn’t offer until 1959, the year I would graduate high school. But, these were slim, pretty dolls, not child or baby dolls. I wish I could remember to which toy company I wrote my thank you letter.

We did get occasional games. Ring toss and badminton were outdoor favorites. I never liked games that came in boxes—baby games like Old Maid—until Sorry! became a frequent Murree rainy day past time. Huddled around the colorful board on the Vroon’s kitchen corner booth, Marty, Andy, Dewey and I would furiously try to get each of our four “men”—yellow, blue, red, or green—around the Sorry! board to the “Home”  of the matching color before someone else’s “man” landed on the same square and knocked ours back to Start. Two die were jiggled with resounding clacks in a cardboard shaker and tumbled across the board. Doubles earned a second turn. Certain squares indicated cards to be drawn for good or dread.

We played for hours. With glee we trounced each other. With sighs and groans our characters were built as we suffered defeat. Victories and defeats were apparently evenly enough distributed that we were always was eager to try again. I became fiercely competitive. I loved the all out fun of the game and the rules which we often challenged, scrutinizing the tiny printed instructions and triumphantly reading them aloud when it was to our advantage. Jewish scholars could not have imagined more construed interpretations.

At Sands Home game-playing was further enjoyed on Friday nights, when the four or five families and the few single missionaries vacationing there gathered in a large room to play musical chairs, charades, Snakes and Ladders, or dominoes. We had hat-making contests. We played checkers and chess. Allowed to participate as equals, we children tried hard to best our elders, who frequently indulged us.  We called our missionary friends “aunt” and “uncle”, and some of them took a special interest in me, lending me books of fairy tales, teaching me how to knit. I waited all week for Friday night, the closest I have ever come to an extended family.

After we returned to the United States in 1954, our family rented a summer cottage on Lake Michigan and before long the kids next door taught me to play canasta. Although I was almost twelve, I had never seen a deck of playing cards. I was instantly enchanted. I thought playing cards a glossy miracle of elegance, simplicity, possibilities and fun. I loved to look at them, handle them, feel their slick clack against the table. Who could resist red hearts and diamonds, black “clovers”, as I called them, and spades? I doted on the kings and queens, thought of the jack as an impudent knave who stole pies from window sills and wondered what happened to his sister, an obvious oversight. I learned a dextrous shuffle, deftly flipping the mixed cards together with a flick of my wrists.

I became obsessed with canasta, spending perfectly good beach days playing game after game in the gloomy little cottage behind our own. I loved the huge fan of cards, the plotting and scheming, the beautiful, orderly layouts. I loved the stacks of canastas and the courage required to go out before I’d racked up as many as I could have, just to catch my opponent with a mitful.

After two summers, the gaming stopped. We rented a different cottage and neither of my parents were interested in games, not even checkers. My brother could only occasionally be pestered into playing Monopoly. My few high school friends I saw mostly at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, where Catholics who played Bingo down the street were roundly condemned and our time was devoted to the Heidelberg Catechism and the edification of my bored rebellious heart.

Then, one Christmas, my mother, ever a proponent of educational entertainment, introduced Scrabble. It was the early Sixties, I was home from Wheaton College and my parents now lived on Lake Michigan. We set up the game on a round table next to a picture window, but the panoramic lake view went unnoticed as all family eyes were glued to the board, plotting our moves, trying to make three, even four words with one play, totting up our points. My competitive ferocity was easily matched by Dewey, and, most ruthless of all, our Aunt Fritzi, who was frequently in Christmas attendance. Even Mother played, with not a trace of maternal concern as she carefully built her words in exactly the place coveted by one of her progeny.

Although all adults now—or at least considering ourselves so—we played Scrabble like a gang of children. Quarrels over words led to the appearance of the Official Scrabble Dictionary, which I studied surreptitiously, memorizing slang words, two-letter words like “ai” (a kind of sloth) and “xi” (a letter in the Greek alphabet) , and abstruse possibilities for “q”, “x”, and “z”. The best scorer was Aunt Fritzi— known for her accounting skills—who most frequently and with annoying triumph used all seven of her letters for a bonus fifty points. Scrabble became a family Christmas tradition.

Then I grew up, went off world-wandering, and after a gameless tour in the Peace Corps, at twenty-six married a philosopher who considered games frivolous and a waste of time. I soon became the director of the county public library in Laramie, Wyoming, where I found no one to play with until our son Dylan arrived. I was thirty, and as much as I loved having a child, I loved being one. Dylan wasn’t quite up to cards at first, but peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake led to hide-and-seek, which led to Easter egg hunts with “Hot!” and “Cold!” hints. We played Find Something Red! Find Something Round at the grocery store. We played Totter Tower and Sludge in the kitchen. As he got a little older, we played Hink Pink (What’s a kitty that eats too much?), Hinky Pinky (What’s a good hiding place for a tiny spaceship?), and even Hinkity Pinkity.

When Dylan began kindergarten, despite my philosophy of nonviolence, I introduced him to playing cards and War—red against black, dealing the entire deck between us. The play was simple: with our stack face down, each of us played our top card and the person with the red card took both. If the cards were the same color, it was War: we’d play again, and then again, until one of us played red and won the bundle. The object was to win all the cards and end up with a full deck.

Not only did War familiarize Dylan with cards, but I could easily slip a card from the bottom of my deck without his noticing, or stack the deck in his favor. I had never cheated at anything before—not in school or in games—having been firmly taught that cheating is for cowards and sluggards, but I didn’t want Dylan to lose so often as to become discouraged. It worked. Before long, we were playing Shape War—we’d pick one shape— say diamonds—that would win over the others. Soon we graduated to numbers: I removed the face cards, played with two decks and the highest number won. And when even that wasn’t challenging enough, we played All Out War: two full decks, high card wins.

Dylan was probably eight when I taught him canasta, a more complex game at which I could also cheat by not going out at the time of greatest advantage. I let Dylan accumulate huge hands, glorious spreads, stacks of canastas. He often won. I tried to teach him the concept of sacrificing delicious possibilities to go out early, catching me with a pile of points against me, but for years, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He liked having more cards than I did.

Then Dylan grew up. Now, in our rare opportunities to play, if I win at all, it’s because I can sometimes outbluff him. I did question whether I should be having so much fun passing along to Dylan my love of games, especially after reading books that frowned on adversarial games and recommended noncompetitive alternatives. I wondered if I might be turning my gentle-hearted child into a win-at-any-cost competitor. I needn’t have worried. Dylan developed an even-tempered, fair-minded, go-with-the-flow approach to life, more like his father. What he seemed to get from our play was a fearless, game-like approach to problem-solving. As an adult he never seemed to care much about winning against people—except for the joy of besting his mom—usually preferring to play against computers, circumstances, or himself. Today, when he loses, he simply tries again, or, I suspect, he lets me win as I let him so many years ago.

A couple decades ago, when I was living in Healdsburg, California and well into my second marriage to a husband who was even less interested in games than my first, Dylan taught me a computer version of Solitaire. At first he easily out-scored me, but I soon surpassed him. For the last year of my marriage and the first two after my divorce, I played computer solitaire whenever I felt blocked, lonely, or depressed, which, if my total of 7,794 games is any indication, must have been most of the time.

I moved from California to Beaver Island, Michigan, where I found a Scrabble partner in my artist friend Cindy Ricksters. We’d play on Tuesday nights at an island bar, providing entertainment for ourselves as well as for the onlookers who’d peer over our shoulders, make approving or sympathetic noises and cheer the underdog, usually me. Cindy loved winning, especially since I, being a writer, for Pete’s sake, should have taken her to the cleaners. She won our summer-long tournament by one game.

Apparently, as I grow older, I am becoming less aggressive. I play hard and appear to lack mercy, but I no longer care much if I win; I just want to play. Now living in Bay City, Michigan, I put a Ping Pong table in the garage which attracts a friend who frequently beats me. Announcing a “Game Night” on FaceBook often finds an opponent or three for Rummikub or Scrabble. Dylan is always game—during his last visit we discovered Boggle, at which he excelled, and UpWords, which might be more fun than Scrabble.  I treasure the camaraderie and intimacy of games, the carefully spelled out rules. Now, I have some advice for anyone interested in my company: Play is the best ploy.

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