My mother, may she rest in peace, had a red faux lizard skin case. Inside it was a bunch of tiles embossed with Chinese letters and designs, with pictures and numbers and who knows what else. There were also little plastic chips with the centers cut out to fit on spindles. Additionally, there were stands upon which to set up the tiles.
It may be that there were only two things my mother owned that were off-limits to us kids: her purse, and that case with the tiles and stuff. Along with the case, there was a blue card that apparently changed once in a while. My mother always got excited when “the new card” arrived in the mail. I remember looking at it from time to time as my mother studied it. Even after I learned how to read, I could never decode the cryptic lines of differently colored numbers.
Of course, it was all about mahjongg. Every 4th Wednesday night of the month, Faith and Anne and Lila and Gert would come over the house and engage in this strange ritual of clacking tiles and groans and odd utterances like, “5 Bam”, “2 Dots,” and so on. It was for women only – Jewish women , I assumed.
There was always coffee steaming in the Pyrex percolator, a coffee cake, and something called “bridge mix.” The ‘girls’ would laugh and laugh all night. I had no idea what they were doing, and I still don’t. But whatever it was they were doing, it looked and sounded great.
Children were categorically banned from the dining room when the girls were over for mahjongg. We could come to say good night, but that was all. None of us ever sought to test that law.
No one seems to know why or how Jewish women picked up the Chinese game of mahjongg in the ’20s and ’30s. I don’t know what the analog was for American women of different faiths. But for Jewish women, it was a mainstay, an important outlet for our mothers to relax, take time out, and enjoy adult female company.
The babyboomer generation of Jewish women has not, as a rule, followed in their mothers’ footsteps. Some do know how to play the game. Many have their mother’s mahjongg sets. But time has become so precious. Jewish women professionals are now expected to show up for their kids’ various practices and recitals and games, not to mention work full-time. Discretionary time hardly exists.
It was a mahjongg night the day my father died. I didn’t even think to call Anne or Faith or Gert or Lila. What did I know? I was 14, with three younger siblings and a rotary phone. Of course, they came over. I met them by the front door and awkwardly told them how my mother left the house in the ambulance and that father had had what looked like a heart attack. They wanted to know if we were ok. I reassured them that I had it under control, though, of course, I didn’t. They hugged me and left.
Years later, I found out that The Girls went to Middlesex Memorial Hospital to sit with my mother as she waited for the dire results. I remember being so touched that this circle of women existed for my mother, that she had friends who supported her, just as she had stood by them in their times of crisis.
My mother became a widow at age 38. She had four kids, all of whom would come to act out in various ways following our father’s death. She was a housewife who suddenly became a single mother whose husband died without an insurance policy or a will.
The Girls looked out for my mother. The entire Middletown Jewish community – a couple hundred families as I recall – looked out for her. People in the synagogue lent her money, helped pay tuitions, hired her for their stores, hired me for their stores. It was a quiet, loving, menschlich form of tzedakah that allowed my mother dignity as she received assistance without ever having to ask for it.
I never learned to play mahjongg, but the sounds of the tiles and the talking, and the smell of the coffee on a game night remain deep in the folds of my brain. So does my mother’s smile and her anticipation as she brought her faux-lizard case out of her closet. My mom, Shirley – one of The Girls – has been gone now for 12 years. But I still hear her voice: “One Bam, no Crak.”
Happy Mothers Day