I can’t remember when I started playing Scrabble with my grandmother. Years ago, but not too many. For a while, she tried to induce me to play gin rummy. She explained the rules to me half a dozen times, but they never stuck. Any time I tried to play, reaching to remember how the game worked, my brain seemed to dim, a feeling I associate with mild hunger or a moderate hangover. The same thing happens when my father tries to explain chess, or cricket, or when my ex-boyfriend talked about his work in the finance industry. Scrabble was different.
Years ago, when her partner, a man I called “Grandpa Sidney,” was still alive, we played Boggle, scanning the lettered die for words with four letters, five if we were lucky. “Shat!” Sid chuckled once, when he was reading his list aloud. “It’s the past tense of ‘shit!’” I was probably eight or nine. He died when I was fourteen, the third man my grandmother has buried in her century on this earth. I don’t think she and I have played Boggle since he died, since I got a little too old for it.
Sometime during my teens, perhaps while I was in college and she was in her mid-nineties, we started playing Scrabble. I would take New Jersey Transit from campus to Penn Station, then take the Long Island Rail Road to her town, always eerily quiet on Saturdays, the shops on the main drag all shut, well-dressed Jewish families walking silently to and from temple. We’d have lunch, then she would take out the Scrabble set while I made tea or reheated the morning’s coffee and put some biscuits on a plate (“Have a cookie,” she’d say, barely an hour after telling me I was putting on weight).
Inside the ancient burgundy box, taped at the corners: the Scrabble board, at least four decades old, probably more; a slim Scrabble dictionary, also older than me; a bag of letter tiles and four tile stands, made of real wood; neatly cut scrap paper; a list of Scrabble-approved two- and three-letter words, and words that contain Q but not U, photocopied from who knows where and who knows how long ago; and a few yellow pencils with “New York State Department of Education” stamped on them in black block letters, left over from her long-ago days as a guidance counselor.
After a while, once it was clear that playing Scrabble was “a thing” — that she did with me, and with my mother and father when they visited — my mother bought her a hefty Scrabble dictionary, with a glossy apple red jacket and crisp white pages. It looks out of place next to all the other items, and when I see it stacked on top of the peeling box, which is held shut with a tired rubber band, or sitting next to the washed out board with its pale pinks and blues, it makes me think of a new modern addition sitting awkwardly on top of an old building. But it contains new modern words that help me occasionally score big, so I don’t mind it so much.
My grandmother, who will turn one hundred in a few short weeks, is as sharp as, and at times, sharper than, a tack. Her hearing has been going for years, but that hasn’t prevented her from completing the New York Times crossword almost every day. And it didn’t prevent her from batting me around the Scrabble board like a cheap chew toy at the beginning — a cocky chew toy impressed with my own extensive vocabulary and assured of my own verbal brilliance, until she repeatedly humbled me. I did not like to lose, and so I quickly learned to watch the way she used the board to her advantage, the way she hoarded certain letters until the end, the way she chose short and strategic words over long and impressive ones.
The first time I beat her, it was by a tiny margin. My palms began to sweat when I realized that I had pulled slightly ahead of her, and I stopped zoning out while I was waiting my turn, spending the time furiously strategizing instead. She took the loss graciously, then cheekily said, “I wasn’t really trying. I’ll get you next time.” She probably did; though I beat her more often these days, she still wins more than she loses. Sometimes, when I win, she says, “Well, I didn’t have great letters, so we’ll call it a tie.” No one in my family likes to lose.
In one area of the game, though, she has us all beat. Her proclivity for playing curse words has become family legend. I wasn’t there the first time it happened, when she played “fuck” on a triple word score, which secured her a thirty-point victory over my flabbergasted father. In his frequent retellings, she looks up at him with a sly twinkle in her eye and says, “Robert, will you be offended if I play a dirty word?” He tells her to go ahead, wondering how dirty it could possibly be, making the terribly foolish error of underestimating a woman who has lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, the deaths of three great loves, and the disco era. “And then she put down ‘fuck,’” my dad says, “and it was all over.”
With me, she gets away with even more. She’s now played the word “cunt” on enough occasions that now, when I snap a photo of it and post it to Facebook, the response from my friends is, “again?!”
With her hundredth birthday fast approaching, we’re planning a party and hoping that the rumours about receiving a signed letter from the President — and from this President, whose election was the stuff of fantasy for much of her life — are true. We’ve struggled a little to plan the celebrations, because no one we know has much experience planning a hundredth birthday party.
And for me, as I’m thinking about how best to sum up and celebrate her century of life, it’s hard to keep from becoming despondent, or despondent-in-advance. She’s in excellent health, but the stark reality is that she won’t be around much longer. I think about this whenever we play Scrabble: once someone hits their nineties, even when they’re healthy, you can’t help but wonder if this will be the last whatever. The last Thanksgiving, the last birthday, the last Passover. The last Scrabble game. I try not to think about it; I try to enjoy her company. I try to relish the silence while she’s studying the board or shifting her tiles around, and I try to remember the banter and the light nonagenarian-appropriate smacktalk that passes back and forth between us during the friendly competition.
But as I’m trying, I’m aware that I want to engrave those words on my brain not just to “live in the moment,” whatever that means, but so I have them for the future. For when she’s not around to play with me anymore.
No one in my family likes to lose, but we all know we’re going to lose her. Fuck.