“Goddamn Crazy Eights; that’s all folks want to do in this place,” she muttered, clacking the ill-fitting dentures that clung to her receding gums. “That’s a game for children, for idiots!”
“I know, Mom,” I replied, willing myself to take deep breaths and count to five before responding, advice my therapist said would keep me from reacting to triggers.
“And Bingo! Another favorite here that takes no brains. B29. G12. Who cares? All you gotta do is stamp a card and then holler for your prize.”
“I know. I know it’s frustrating but, hey, didn’t you win a bar of scented soap last week at Bingo night?” I hoped my efforts to steer the conversation to another topic might work.
“Yes. That was a nice surprise. But I only play that mindless game because there’s nothing else to do in this hovel.” She sighed and worried a jelly stain on her blouse with her thumb. “Now Scrabble. There’s a game of intellect. No one beats me in Scrabble.” Her face lit up at the mere mention of her favorite board game.
“Yep. You’re the champ of Scrabble. That’s true.”
I helped her up from her chair, placed the walker bars in her hands and moved slowly beside her as she banged and clanked down a long, antiseptic hallway at Sunset Palms Assisted Living, the final stop before an all out nursing home. “Let’s go to lounge and set up the board. Maybe I’ll get lucky and beat you this week,” I said.
And this is how it goes, our conversations move from goddamn Crazy Eights, to the inedible crap they serve in the dining hall, to a small rant against that bastard husband (my father) who left her 37 years ago, to the mind-numbing boredom she lives through each day at Sunset Palms, a place she doesn’t need as she is perfectly capable of “taking care of myself!”
Sometimes we laugh as she remembers an event from the past, like when our dog ate an entire birthday cake cooling on a counter. Or she tells me about the torrid affairs happening between residents at the home, often providing details I wish not to hear.
I see my Mom across from me, setting up the Scrabble board, putting the wooden tiles in their bag and shaking them, smoothing a clean piece of paper with our names penciled in at the top, and try to recall what she was like when I was ten or twenty.
My mom, raised in a dusty town on the Alabama/Mississippi border, was a dark-haired, green-eyed beauty, who never made it past high school. Smart, smart enough to escape Alabama and move west, but never able to go to college, to know her value beyond the picture-perfect smile and the 36C cup.
“You know,” she said, as she drew her seven tiles and began to play, “your dad never gave me much credit. Small town. Ignorant. He called me those things.” She spun the board toward me, grinning as she recorded her double-word score of 42 on the paper. “But he never beat me in Scrabble. I always cleaned his clock.”
“I know, Mom.” I rubbed my forehead and struggled to build a word out of my pathetic draw: six vowels, one consonant. It would be a long game.
“Ha! I always beat him…and he’d get so mad! ‘I’m a Yale educated man. How can you beat me at a word game?’” She mimicked his voice and was laughing now as she thought about her small victories over my father.
I watched her happiness. We played on and I saw her draw each new tile from the bag. She’d finger it slowly, reading the shapes etched into the wood; occasionally she’d retrieve a tile and drop it back or let it fall to the floor and pull another. I pretended to look at the tear in my jeans or study the tiles left in my tray.
“Triple word score!” she crowed. “Z-O-Y-S-I-A. A persistent and creeping kind of grass.” She clapped her hands and begin to tally her points. I forced myself to breathe, deeply, and count to five. She calculated her score on the sheet, adding ten extra points in her column.
Finally I smiled, “Great word, Mom. Triple points? There’s no way I can top that. You are the queen of Scrabble.”
She sat back and sighed. “Keeps your mind sharp. Use it or lose it. Not like that idiot’s game of Crazy Eights.”