In 1960s Howard Beach, Queens my mother can leave me, 9, and my sister, 6, asleep in our small fifth floor corner two-bedroom apartment when she goes across the hall to play mah jongg at Marcia’s. “Goodnight, my loves, she says as she tucks us in after reading Harry the Dirty Dog to us for the third time. “Sleep well. I’ll be right across the hall. I’ll leave the door open so I can hear you.” The rhythmic click of the game tiles lull me to sleep. The ladies’ muffled chatter and cigarette smoke waft out, too, but it’s the clacking like high heels on tile that reverberate so vividly. “Three Bam!” someone shouts. Not yet knowing that Bam is one of the four ‘suits’ in this centuries-old, four-player Chinese game that has become a mainstay of Jewish housewife life, I think of Batman. I see “BAM!” in emphatic yellow all caps. “Same Bat time, same Bat channel!” I think as I drift off. And I think, too, how I can’t wait to grow up to play mah jongg myself and wear high heels. I want to click, too.
The tiles, yellowed cream-colored about the size of a matchbox, featured Chinese black, green, red, and blue symbols. The Bakelite – a hard plastic created in the early 1900s, now coveted as a retro collectible – feels smooth in my fingers, like my Greek grandfather’s amber worry beads. It turns out that Bakelite is made of phenol and formaldehyde; I vaguely wonder if it could have contributed to the cancer…
A coven of old Jewish ladies presides over this game played by millions of their followers: beehive-haired, cigarette smoking, coffee drinkers with black eyeliner. They bet change on each hand; a big night might yield 50 cents. They make the rules and release the highly anticipated mah jongg card with its complex set of hands is revealed annually. The faithful masses order theirs, at $9 each, well in advance. The new configuration is guarded as closely as nuclear code. It is like a cult with its own language and rules, with outposts in New York City and Miami Beach.
My mother never taught my sister and me how to play. By the time we were old enough to learn we’d moved to the NJ suburb of Westfield, where progressive dinners in pearls replaced the card table game. By the time she took it up again, she lived in Florida, too far for tutelage. I always lamented that she hadn’t passed down this sacred rite of Jewish femalehood to my sister and me. I don’t know what happened to her original Bakelite set, or if she even owned her own. After my father died and she began to play regularly, we bought her a brand new deluxe set, with sparkly silver-backed tiles, and fancy tile sweepers attached to the small racks. The set came in its own black snap-closured case, which looked more like James Bond than Jewish Lady.
She reconnected to the game, the friends that came with it, and a new life on her own. Ten years later, when we came upon that set while cleaning out her apartment after she died, it was the only thing that Suzanne and I even got close to disagreeing over. We both wanted it. “I don’t want anything else, really,” I said. Going through her things had drained us both. “Me neither,” she said. “Let’s just put it in the box of stuff to ship home and we’ll decide later,” she added. After we got home she did something typical of her deep grace. “You keep it,” she said one day. “I know how much it means to you.” I began to protest, to no avail. “No, really, I mean it. It’s ok.”
I had a fantasy of holding those tiles again, like I did in Howard Beach, just wanting to touch what she had touched for some tenuous connection.
I wanted to learn to play. I had a fantasy of sitting at a card table with friends, like she had, to honor her memory and carry on the tradition.
It took a while to get four of us together, but about a year after she died, we finally sat down in Suzanne’s kitchen, eager for our friend Stacey to explain the game to us. We set up the racks, spread the tiles over the table, set our cards in front of us, and listened as she explained the intricacies of the game.
I awaited the “BAM!” Anticipating channeling my mother. Thought how pleased she’d be to see Suzanne and me playing with her set. But instead, my head started to hurt. It was after dinner after a long day, and despite the green tea, my mind just wouldn’t focus on the hands, the rules, and the complexities. I could see Suzanne concentrating and catching on. She is a Sudoku whiz, so this type of mathematical reasoning is her sweet spot. I, on the other hand, can barely calculate an appropriate tip without a calculator. The harder I tried to focus, the more the vein at my temple throbbed. Finally by 9 pm we’d made it through two practice hands; I’d done fairly abysmally.
“I’ll leave the set here,” I told Suzanne. “I don’t have a card table and we need one to play next time,” was my excuse, but somehow I felt in my gut that she should, after all, have it.
I fretted all the way home over some vague feeling that I’d disappointed my mother. I called Suzanne when I arrived.
“I’m not sure about this,” I said.
“I know. You looked miserable the whole time,” she answered.
“I think it was just too late. I just don’t think that way. You do. Give me a book to discuss and I’ll stay up all night, but I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Diane,” she said, “you don’t have to.” She was not mincing words.
“But I feel guilty.”
“Why?” Her voice was gentle.
“Because I feel like I’m letting her down. She’d have been so happy that we were playing together.”
“But she’s gone. And she certainly wouldn’t have wanted you to play a game you don’t like.”
“I know. You’re right.”
“Just think about it. You don’t have to decide anything tonight.”
I haven’t played since, and I doubt I will. The set is still at Suzanne’s house. When this year’s new mah jongg cards arrive, I give them to her, too.
Diane Lowman is a single mother of two young adult men. She teaches yoga, provides nutritional consulting, tutors Spanish, and wanders the beach of Westport, CT. She looks forward to what’s next.