Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mah Jong and Me

Scarlett read the Happy Ladies Club newsletter and chose mah jong for her first activity.  I got into the class off the wait list... and I was just about as anxious as those of you watching the mailbox for college replies are right now.

Does that seem odd?  Scarlett and I can meet for any number of wonderful reasons.  My life is totally scheduled with class and exercise and GRIN and The Burrow and I don't need another appointment on my calendar.  The weather is beautiful and won't be this palatable for long and I really should be outside enjoying it.

Yet,I was giddy when I received the email giving me a newly opened spot in the five session Introduction to mah jong class.

I like games less for the strategy involved than for the feel of the pieces in my hand.  Nannie gave me a backgammon set 40 some years ago; it's as delightful this afternoon as it was when I played it as a grad student in Chicago.  Various iterations of dice resulted in one red and one amber of equal heft and balance.  These things are important to me.

I know where my joy in textured playing pieces originated.  We spent our summers at a beach club, a pool and food and beach and lounge chair paradise along the Atlantic Ocean.  Our family changed and left our swim gear in a rented-for-the-summer locker, a wood slat stall which could be opened and closed by The Locker Boy.

Oh, the crushes we had on The Locker Boy.

For those with more disposable income, those who chose to sit with the grown ups instead of watching the kids by the pool, there were cabanas.... and yes, there were Cabana Boys, too.

The dads took up residence on the weekends, playing cards and smoking cigars. But during the week the lounge chairs and card tables on the patios in front of the cabanas were populated by slender women with teased hair, wearing one piece swim suits with long skirts or colorful beach towels anchored at their waists.

They were playing mah jong.

Their nails were shiny with polish and clacked and clicked and ticked against the tiles and the sounds went right through me.  The game looked fast paced and cutthroat in a girl-friends kind of way. There was time to chatter and time to play, and it was fluid and quick and I wanted it... a lot.

Everyone had a cigarette and a pack of gum.  People moved in and out of the game as lunch or the pool or a soda break demanded.  It was different but it was exactly the same.  These women were what I saw on television.  They were shiny and glossy and knew just what they were doing.  They were so unlike my own mother, who was nothing like anything I saw on the silver screen.

I grew up and realized that those women were no happier or healthier or smarter or more fun than my own maternal unit, but the impression they made lived on. I've waited to play for 50 years.  This morning I got my chance.  I brought my $35 check and my neatly polished nails to the social hall at the Unitarian Universalist church four blocks away.

Scarlett and I played with two former Chicago teachers using the instructor's oldest set.  It felt wonderful in my hands.  The oils of generations of use, the rough edges of the etched designs which rubbed hundreds of other fingers before mine.... I was there on the patio outside a cabana on a sunny Long Island afternoon.

Then the instruction began and I brought myself back to the moment.  I tried to remember which were bams and which were cracks; the dots were self evident.  There are dragons and seasons and flowers and there's something called soap which still has me confused.  The official game rules were created by "a group of Jewish women in New York."  So says our teacher, and who am I to dispute it? It's a completely congruent statement for me.

The game changes every April; there are only certain ways to win and those are revealed on The New Card. We were encouraged to go on-line and pre-order ours; apparently, they are hot sellers. Happily, the cards are nicely laminated and brightly colored.  It would be a shame if the tactile delights of the game were besmirched by an inferior necessity.

No one won today, and somehow that seems to be okay.  We have a hand out to review before our next session, and I've been told there are on-line sites as well.  For now, though, I'm going to close my eyes and continue my trip down memory lane.  Not all of it was wonderful, but the clacking of those mah jong tiles sounds like a claxon in my head.... it was the sound of being an adult, and I could taste it.....

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