I grew up in an apartment house in the Bronx – a five-story pre-war walkup that was actually two buildings with an adjoining lobby. I lived with my mother on the A side, and her sister Sally lived with her husband and two sons on the B side. On Friday nights my mother would dress up, put on Evening in Paris perfumed talc, and take me over the roof so my aunt could watch me while she went dancing at Roseland. It so happened that Friday was Aunt Sally’s Mah Jongg night, and so instead of boo-hooing about mommy leaving me, I had the honor of setting up the table and making sure there were enough Raisinets and pineapple wedges for the girls.
The game was set up in the living room; the girls would come at 8. My uncle sequestered himself in one bedroom with the little black and white TV, and my two cousins would be in the other bedroom doing homework or whatever it is that little boys do. I would sit cross-legged on the couch behind my aunt and watch her make hands. I didn’t realize at the time but I, a nine-year-old in pajamas, was absorbing a strategy that would last a lifetime.
My aunt was a consummate player. She was extremely outgoing and sociable, yet she played a quiet game, always flipping and switching and murmuring to herself. She knew what everyone in the house was doing, could smell if the coffee was percolating, and never was fooled by the fact that I had my eyes closed but wasn’t sleeping. She would let me set up her wall while she turned off the coffee pot and took care of her hostess duties, and then she would slip into her seat and I would sit behind her and watch. The flowers went this way and that, first the cracks would be together, then for some unknown reason she would start to throw them out and bams would take their place. This mysterious reckoning would take up the evening as the soft clicking and tile naming would lull me to sleep.
My aunt passed away 15 years ago, and now the Friday night Mah Jongg games are mine. Now it is she I feel behind me as I go through my mysterious reckonings, and I almost hear her thinking – don’t throw that flower, keep that red.
I make coffee and put out pineapple and Raisinets just as she taught me to do – and I know that she is proud of me.
Want to learn more about Linda? Check out her Mah Jongg blog!