It is a few evenings before Christmas and we’re in the living room of my brother’s house in St. John’s, Newfoundland. A low fire winks behind the screen of the small coal burning fireplace and undernotes of coffee mixed with alcohol intermittently finds my nose.
I and my 19 year old boyfriend are dressed to disco – him perfumed in English Leather cologne wearing his navy blue velvet jacket and me in my shortened prom dress – a couple of sophisticates. My brother, his wife and their friends invite us to play Fictionary before we go dancing at Stanley’s Steamer. The game pre-dates Balderdash but it is the same idea. One person picks a random obscure word from the dictionary and then each person creates a bogus definition and writes it on a piece of paper dropped into a bowl. The person who picked the word reads out the definitions and everyone votes on which is the real/best one.
I excelled at the game partly because of my bullshitting ability and a love of words and their sounds, and because since I was little my mother bade me to “look it up” whenever I asked what a word meant. She was a walking dictionary, and it ticked me off when she did this because I knew she knew. But looking up the words taught me how dictionaries are written and formatted, and when I played Fictionary my answers were realistically phrased and framed. I’ve always been a good mimic.
With Fictionary I enjoyed success and felt a competence I never felt with any other party game. I won round after round. My brother, not then a world-renowned scientist but on his way, his wife a university Biology professor, one friend a brilliant pianist, the other a marine botanist, and my boyfriend a bookish Magna Cum Laude law-bound debating powerhouse, were stunned. I felt great.
I didn’t want to go dancing. I wanted to keep playing. Of course partly it was the allure of success, partly the feeling that I’d found my intellectual groove, but more appealing was the graciousness and kindness of the other players who told me how creative I was. I was unused to praise. I also liked the homey feeling in the room. The smell of alcohol wasn’t threatening, like it had been when I was a kid. The room was warm with chatter and lively with firelight and wood crackling. This gathering felt like a family – an unfamiliar feeling to me – and I wanted more.
Games are still not my forte. Nonetheless, when our kids were little we played simple games, games like Snakes and Ladders which didn’t require advanced degrees to understand or demand any strategic gifts. They relied on chance, the roll of the dice. I liked these games perhaps because they aligned with my world view and the easy rules appealed to me, black and white dice being a pleasing metaphor.
Years ago, when first married, we frequently gathered with my husband’s five siblings to play games on Friday night, something that sung to my soul. Family time! Games! Here I was with this boisterous large clan who welcomed me to their big table. My brothers-in-law, one a law student, played Trivial Pursuit as though their next meal depended on it and I, fresh out of university with a major in knowing it all tucked under my arm, argued with lawyer B.I.L. like a Tasmanian Devil mama defending her young. It was personal. I left the table angry regardless of whether I won or lost.
On a memorable visit with my brother and his game loving wife in 2014, I attempted to play cards with them and our kids and, mired in the complex rules, let my tongue loose in frustration which came out spiked with sarcasm. Our youngest daughter who was having a great time said “You don’t have to play if you don’t want to, Mom” in a manner sticky with 14 year old contempt.
So. Exposed, I retreated to my bedroom in the basement where I could hear the players hooting and laughing from the dining room as I salved the punctures to my ego and beat myself up for being a failure at family games night.
I know now my solidly entrenched antipathy towards games isn’t because I don’t like losing. Last summer when visiting my sister we played Scrabble. She always wins. The rules are clarified at the beginning of the game so there is never any need to consult the miniscule printed Scrabble legislation or burst into flames at a perceived breach of protocol. I think one of the other things I like about Scrabble are the squares on the board. I like fitting the tiles into the squares, I like the number values assigned to the letters, the arithmetic of words. Somehow this makes sense to me. Words have value, right?
Having been beaten by my sister a couple of times, I was happy enough when a card game was suggested. A new game. We played a trial round so I could learn the rules but I could feel my throat closing and a sense of panic rising. My sister’s voice turned into that Charlie Brown teacher’s voice. None of the words made sense. I asked if we could call it a night and perceptive sister asked “Why don’t you like playing games?” and I said “Because I feel stupid and everyone else catches on so fast.”
When I think about that conversation I see that its really about me worrying what others will think of me if I don’t get something right on the first try. I’m afraid to show my underbelly because someone might bite it. It’s like I can’t give myself permission to learn in the presence of others or maybe it’s that I always have to feel smart and witty and sharp as a nail. Maybe I’m afraid that if I don’t understand something right off the bat, I’ll be criticized. I will feel less than.
A few years ago, we went to Bermuda in July for a family holiday. The buses stopped running at 6:30 in the evening and we were 20 minutes outside of Hamilton in a small cottage. With nothing else to do, we played cards – rounds and rounds of Hearts and Gin Rummy. Initially, none of us knew how to play but the Internet taught us and we figured them out together. With the aid of homemade Dark and Stormy drinks and probably as the result of spending most of the day on the beach, I was as relaxed as a bowl of soup. The exultant choir of tree frogs hummed outside and inside the drone of the air conditioner loosened my boar bristle nerves.
I wonder also was I at ease because we spent days together sharing the experiences of navigating the bus system and practiced patience waiting in Bermuda’s dense damp heat, swimming and snorkeling awestruck in Bermuda’s aquarium-like water discovering parrot fish and brain coral, walking its narrow roads evading death by scooter. I felt close and connected to everyone – safe – and a game of cards didn’t feel like an assault on what I can see now is my frightened soul. They aren’t games to me. They’re threats that people might see the real me. The dumb one. Which is of course, dumb, though I know my brain thought it was protecting me from the thing I crave because the thing I crave – connection – is risky business, especially with family members.
I’m not sure why my brain reacts this way, what experiences it filtered that this inability to play the game became a faulty defense mechanism. I’m working on it. There’s a sense of urgency to this quest because another daughter is about to leave home, albeit temporarily, and I feel these connections need immediate attention. I am frantic. Is it too late?