It is a cool, gray, wet day; summer has suddenly broken. I pull open the second drawer of the lowboy in the dining room, looking for a pen, and I notice all the decks of cards jumbled in the back, neglected and patient.
The cards. This rain.
I am transported to a summer, back when I was ten or twelve, and my family had a cottage on the lake, a cottage in kind of a swanky little rustic resort area not far from my hometown. People from Squirrel Hill–people with money–came there to summer, or to rent a place for two weeks or a month; they roughed it in ramshackle little cottages with no insulation, no dishwashers, slapping screen doors, and sand in every cranny. Those folks had drinks in the backyard every night; their glasses, full of amber liquid and melting ice cubes, wobbled on uneasy little metal tables. They sat on old enameled metal lawn chairs, talking about the boats they docked at the marina. Their kids spent their days on the beach or in those boats, hair bleaching out, their tanned hides growing progressively darker.
We were there only because of an ad in the paper–“Cottage free for two weeks if you’ll paint.”
“Why not?” agreed my parents. “It will be an adventure.” The cottage was tiny; my brothers were old enough to help. Painting would be the work of a day or two, and then we could kick back and enjoy a beachy break from the same-old, same-old.
We jumbled shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits into boxes; we planned food for two weeks. We bundled up the dog, her chain, and her kibble, and we drove off in the packed Buick, on a sunny Sunday, to take possession of that little kingdom for that little limited time.
And then, of course, we woke up Monday and it rained.
So I baked cookies in the tiny electric oven–an adventure in itself; I’d never used anything but a gas oven. Is this how other people live? I pondered. I put the cookies on a tray–peanut butter cookies with squares of Hershey bar melting onto their tops in lieu of chocolate kisses. I washed my dishes.
The cookies were gone by lunch, and everyone was bumping into one another, and the rain poured down and threatened to ignite a family rebellion.
And then we found the card drawer.
Seems to me most every home had a card drawer, in those days–usually in the kitchen, top row, right next to the thing drawer. The card drawer had decks of cards neatly stored in their cellophaned boxes. It had pads of paper for keeping score. Sometimes those were official score-keeping pads from card parties, or they could be little tablets given out by the local gas station at Christmas, with “Ron’s Texaco: We’ll pick you up” and a picture of a tow truck printed in blue ink across the bottom.
There would be a handful of pens in a tightly rubber-banded bunch–Bic Stics, three-quarters used up, or click pens with advertising on their barrels. There might, in that drawer, be a handful of change. That would be in case you were playing skat, or even, for the really serious and daring, poker—pennies and nickels stashed to reward your prowess.
The cottage’s card drawer saved the day; we set up two card tables on the rickety screened-in sunporch, pulled out chairs, put two decks together, dealt out hands of seven, and started, as the cool rain fell noisily around us, on the first of many hands of 500 Rummy. Someone put a single on the record player, with one of those funny yellow puzzle piece/grabby things in the hole in the middle of the record. It seems to me we listened to a lot of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” that summer, music collections being limited.
And we played cards and laughed and complained, and we crowed at our own genius and bitterly resented the good fortune of others. I remember a shifting group with friends arriving and brothers going off to work, and at night, the teams changing to grown ups with ash trays and cigarette smoke and maybe a beer but certainly a never-ending pot of coffee perking on the stove, and cheap thick white mugs balanced on the corners of the card table–half of them smudged with lipstick prints.
Playing cards seemed like the universal past-time then; playing cards saved the day until the sun, finally, came out, and the painting got done, and the blue waters of Lake Erie pulled us to the sand.
I realized, remembering this, how deeply embedded card playing was into my growing up years. Back then, toddlers watched the big people laughing uproariously, dealing cards, slapping them down on the dining room table’s glossy wooden surface, and they knew, from their very first knowing, that those mysterious, shiny-coated, rectangular cards contained fun in their shapes and pictures. Toddlers learned, when they finally got those cards into their own pudgy fingers, that the cards were to be respected. Fat little hands got slapped for folding cards or throwing cards or dog-earing them. Growing up, all of our jokers were marked in ball point ink–the ‘J’ crossed off, and “7-Clubs” scribbled in, because some little one (or even some big one) had carelessly lost a card.
We learned to play War, the very first game, where someone split a deck roughly into two stacks, and the pair of participants flipped cards over. The high card took all until you ran into a tie, and then someone would intone, in a mock English accent, “Of course, you KNOW: THIS means WAR!” On top of your ‘tie’ card, you put another face-down, and then another on top of that, face up.
The person with the greater third card flipped first. Whoever had the higher buried card took the whole pile of six, made sure they were all top side up, neatened them, put them at the very bottom of the pile.
To win, you must gather in ALL the cards, every single one; there were always cries of ‘No fair!’ along the way. (You weren’t supposed to pull from the middle; you weren’t supposed to know where your high cards were; but sleight of hand was always taking place.) Sometimes it got so bad a grown-up had to intervene; that was chancy because the whole game could be cancelled if the hostilities had escalated beyond a civilized, controllable point.
We would not tolerate cheating in others, but we hoped things would not progress to that dire pass; a good, satisfying game of War could take all afternoon.
Once War was mastered, a kid could progress to Crazy Eights, Go Fish, and, finally, 500 Rummy, a game that called for skill and finesse. Should you lay down cards as you go? Maybe it was better to take a chance and save them, lulling the other players into complacency as they saw your burgeoning hand, awaiting your turn to slap them down with a flourish and shout, “I’m out!” Keeping score was a complicated business; aces were fifteen (even if used as 1’s, a point sometimes bitterly argued.) Everything up to the 10 card counted as five; the rest were worth ten points.
If you weren’t the one to go out, you counted up your lay-downs and subtracted from that total the amount of cards in your hand. Discerning eyes examined your math and that of the scorekeeper. Some days, no matter how smart you played, your luck was awful, and the cards didn’t play. Some days no one could touch you.
By the time you mastered Rummy, you might be ready to learn a little poker from older card sharps with an eye for your nickels.
I learned a lot playing cards, learned about honesty and negotiation, how to stand up for myself, when to consult the rule book, when to call on an ultimate authority. I learned to try not to crow at victory and to lose like a champ.
And then, around age 11 or so, the opportunity arose to learn the REAL game. My parents taught me (probably because they needed a partner, but also because it was a true rite of passage out of Little Kid-dom) to play pinochle.
Oh, the magic of that game–with its two chances for points, meld and tricks. There was the mystery of trump and the fact that points were NOT unlimited–I could win here, but I had to deal with reality. Bidding to 36 when I only had eight meld was a certain path to failure.
Sometimes I played three-handed, on my own ‘team’; then there might be the chance of three cards in a kitty–the chance that one of those cards would be exactly the one I needed to give me a perfect hand. There was also the chance that I’d turn over three nines and have nothing–nothing!–and have to throw the hand in, disgraced and undignified.
Sometimes I had a partner, and her cards would shore up my weaknesses and I would gather in the tricks and try very very hard not to gloat. And sometimes my partner’s cards and mine did not sync in any way, and we fell short of our bid and watched the scorekeeper use the minus sign to tally our points.
Sometimes when my Uncle Bill stopped in to visit, the cards would come out. Dad and Uncle Bill would bid each other up, out of sheer brotherly competition; Bill would be moaning all the while, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!” and then he’d one-up my father. My mother, who had a good solid hand but had dropped out of the bidding when it left the land of realistic expectations, would grow more and more white-lipped.
Occasionally, one of the men and his partner would make the outrageous bid; but more often, with roars of laughter, they would throw the hand in, take the hit in points, delight in the fact he’d kept his brother from a big score. My mother would stomp off to the kitchen to perk a new pot of coffee, thoroughly disgusted.
Card parties were a thing in those days; at the church we attended, they were the fund raiser of choice, not just a way to make some money for the Altar and Rosary Society or the Holy Name Club, but a chance for grown-ups to go out and have fun. They brought home prizes–a table prize might be an African violet or a bottle of good booze; the door prize might be something more valuable–a twenty-five dollar gift certificate at the Acme Grocery Store, or a free lube job at the Gulf station.
My mother was often a planner in the card party world; I learned that playing cards was not only fun, but it could be a serious, disciplined enterprise, as well.
I sorted friends by their ability to play pinochle, or not–my good buddy Liza and I often started our weekend adventures playing a couple of games of pinochle with my parents before heading out, wits sharpened, to find whatever passed for action on Friday or Saturday night. I married a pinochle player, and that was one area of the union that always played out right for the three short years we struggled on.
We played cards in the break room of the little parochial school where I taught middle school English (and sometimes history, art, and phys ed) and, post-marriage, I invited friends and family to my tiny efficiency apartment for weekend card nights.
And then, having married Mark, weekends settled down; other events often provided entertainment. Eventually, though, the need to play cards bubbled back up and a group of us women banded together to indulge our pinochle habit. We met once a month, taking turns to host. The party of players ebbed a little and then became steady. We were a group; we named ourselves the Knuckleheads. We had a motto: “What’s trump?”–because, so often, we would lay our cards down flat to listen to one of Rosemary’s stories–stories that made us rock with laughter, stream with tears,–and then have no idea where we were when finally we picked up our hands to continue.
And then a move, and another–and changes in everyone’s circumstances—and the landing–a happy landing, at that–in a place where the game of choice is not pinochle. It is euchre, and I have yet to learn.
But the cards still wait in the second-down drawer–some packs have never been opened. Once in a while, a whim will catch the three of us, and we’ll deal out hands of three and roll nickels around and draw from the pile in the center of the table, playing skat–trying to last each other out till we reach that magic 31, or trying to capitalize on a same-suit hand right after the deal.
Once, even, the Knuckleheads did a Wild Ohio Tour, sharing two queen beds in a hotel around the corner so we could stay up until two playing hand after hand of pinochle at my table, catching up on the events of our lifetimes. The next day we had lunch at a bar and grill called Knuckleheads, where the staff beamed kindly at our gray heads bobbing over our hamburgers–more used to bare-armed, tattooed, bottle-babies who pull up on noisy bikes than to well-trimmed ladies of a certain age pulling out pictures of grandkids and pets.
But for the most part, the playing of cards has slipped away–it’s a special event now rather than a regular fact of life. That’s because, I’m sure, of many factors–the fact, for one, that I need no longer break open an actual deck to play a game of solitaire, Spider or otherwise. I have electronic opponents against whom I can test my skill at hearts. The busyness of life has changed our modus operandi. It’s been ages since I’ve heard of a card party fund raiser, and these days, people would think it rude to just stop in and visit on, say, a Wednesday night.
I am blessed with a wonderful life and not at all bemoaning the past, but I admit to feeling a great nostalgia when I pulled open the drawer on this rainy afternoon and saw all those lonely, lovely decks of cards. I think that maybe I need to invite my grandkids to visit, and have a rummy old afternoon; I think that when I go to see my godchild next month, I’ll slip a couple of decks into my luggage and do my best to co-opt her kids. Everyone should, I think, hear the slapping of the cards in one little corner of her memory, remember the raucous echoed laughter, the moaning exclamation, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!”, and know the joy of being the one, for once, whose cards are in line with the winning.
Tonight is family movie night; we’ll pull up a NetFlix film on the Apple TV, or maybe even go old-school and pop in a DVD James has borrowed from the library. But this weekend, I think, come Friday night, I’ll make some popcorn, pull out the cards, and challenge the boyos to a rousing game of Skat, no holds barred.
Life bids me to firmly let go of some pleasures; others I simply outgrow. I cannot fit them all in my limited luggage, after all; I sort the lasting from the lost and move on. But I know this: as long as I have the skill to deal, the wit to count, and the will to laugh,–as long as I have the daring partners with whom to collude, and I can take joy in the possibilities as yet to be turned over–as long as those things are all in place, I’ll still be playing cards.