Our theme for the month of September is Alphabet Soup. Each writer was assigned a letter and will title their post “___ is for ___.”
There is no kids’ table at our Kentucky family gatherings—just the grown-up table, plus me. Of my Grandma Ruth’s nine grandchildren, I am the youngest by far. As a kid I ride down with my mom several times a year to visit, though without peers I’m often bored out of my mind.
My mom and her three sisters pass the time laughing, reminiscing, and playing utterly cutthroat games of Scrabble. With no one left to talk to I finally ask, “Can I play too?” With a nod, my mom motions for me to join the most sacred table of them all: the Scrabble table.
My grandma and her daughters have dozens of novels, memoirs, short stories, and magazine articles published between them. Scrabble games with these women are unmatched in their intensity. Grandma’s bird clock chirps away the hours as they contemplate their next words, thumbing through dictionaries, stringing together syllables. The list of acceptable two-letter words is memorized. Tiles clack as they are shuffled and re-shuffled on their racks. I watch and learn and play. It is baptism by fire.
My mom trains for these games. Back home, when dinner is finished and the dishes are washed, she inserts a Scrabble CD-ROM into our desktop computer and begins her daily battles against the hardest A.I., Maven. Maven in all his genius has become the most-talked-about enemy in my household. But he sets my mom up to make 311 points on the word FLOOZIES (“Used all my letters to make an eight-letter word and got both triples!”), which she will brag about regularly for the next eleven years. The aunts taunt her by claiming she made it up, so she prints off the game scoreboard to prove her triumph on our next visit down south. She does not tell me the word’s definition.
“My eight-year-old used all her letters?” Mom is astonished. I sit beaming and count up my score, bolstered by the fifty-point bonus for clearing my rack. This play puts me in the lead, but competition is fierce. In the end my Aunt Lyn’s slow turn-taking pays off and she wins the game. My heart is crushed. I will not forgive her for this. Not until next year’s reunion will I win my first game and take my place among the champions.
Between turns, I hear the telling and re-telling of family history. My grandma’s writings are about her time as a missionary in India, where my aunts were all born. Stories of poisonous snakes killed with shoes, wildcats in attics, rajah neighbors and malaria outbreaks. Aunt Sheila still remembers folks songs they learned as children. Grandma’s house overflows with relics of that time, carved rosewood chests and elephant statues with real ivory. Playing Scrabble allows me into much more than just the family pastime.
My grandma plays the word and counts out her points. “What does that mean?” My mom asks, but my grandma quickly shakes her head.
Ten-year-olds do not miss anything. Snatching a Scrabble dictionary, I flip to the word before my grandma can stop me. “Tup,” I read out loud. “To copulate with an ewe.” My mom’s eyes widen in terror.
“Wait, what does copulate mean?” I flip to the front of the book. “Copulate. To exchange in coitus. What does coitus mean?”
My mom puts her head in her hands. My grandma is covering her mouth and giggling uncontrollably. I turn a few pages back and read, “Coitus. Sexual intercourse…oh. Gross.”
You never know what word you’ll learn next.
Old score sheets pile up in the Scrabble box at my grandma’s house. By high school, I’ve won many more games and learned more tricks from the guides and printouts we spread out when we play: “Unusual words,” “Words with many vowels,” “Q without U” (what is a “QINTAR” and why do I “SUQ” so much at this game?). I know the letter point values and frequencies by heart and dread getting stuck with a V or Q or too many Is.
We drink sweet tea and ponder our next plays. The house still smells like curry from last night’s dinner, where we chatted and told stories around the dining table until 10 p.m. It is my grandma’s turn. Her eyesight is fading, and her shaky hands move slowly, place letters askew on the board. We bought a set of yellow tiles with black letters on them, the better for her to see with her macular degeneration.
She finally places an F at the beginning of her word. FUCKS.
“Mom!” Aunt Sylvia scolds. “You can’t play that!”
“It’s a word, isn’t it?” Grandma is indignant. She wants her thirty-four points. My mom and I are cackling.
We bicker, and Grandma finally admits defeat and accepts eighteen measly points for SUCK.
“My ninety-three-year-old missionary grandma played the F word?” I muse, sending everyone into another bout of laughter. Grinning, I glance down at my name on the scoresheet, not winning but still catching up.
I’ve taken it all for granted before and will do so again. But in this moment, I’m grateful. For my grandma and her infinite spunkiness, my aunts and their raucous jokes and late-night singing, and my mom for encouraging me to join it all despite my shyness.
My family history is India, Kentucky, and two-hour Scrabble games at a rickety card table.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She currently lives in Madison, WI, sharing a house with two other Calvin grads. She works as a software support analyst for the State of Wisconsin court system and enjoys painting, rock climbing, biking downtown, and walking her dog.