By Diana Leo
Artwork by Alli Rowe
My father brought home our family’s first Scrabble set when I was five years old. My sister Linda was 9. In those years, his arrival at the end of the day set off a stampede to the door by Linda and me, followed by our puppy Tammy, who outdid us both in her hysterical joy at his presence. My mother would follow. “Girls,” she would say, “Let him take off his coat. Mack, tell them to stop.”
Every night before leaving his office in lower Manhattan, my father made two phone calls. One was to his widowed father, my Zaida, just to check on him and ask about his day. The other was to my mother, to see if she wanted him to pick up anything on his short walk from the subway stop to our apartment. There were three bakeries, four appetizing stores, two delicatessens, a supermarket, a drug store and a tobacco shop within a few blocks of our Brooklyn building. It would have been easy for my mother or my sister to make a quick trip for a forgotten item, but my father never failed to call.
On the night of the Scrabble set, my father came home carrying two packages. One a quart of freshly packed ice-cream that he had picked up on his way from the subway. The other was a surprise. It was a new game and he was going to teach us all how to play as soon as dinner was over and the dog was walked.
The meal was dispatched, the dog out and back almost before she had completed her evening duties, and at last, we all settled at the kitchen table. Slowly and deliberately, one piece of equipment followed another out of the large rectangular box: the board with its delicately delineated pink, red, navy blue, powder blue and tan squares; the trays to hold the tiles, and the tiles themselves, each containing a letter with its point value printed in the corner. My father carefully reviewed the instructions with us and then suggested that we try a game. As I reached for my tray, he took it from me and explained that I was too young to play.
Too young! This was the bane of my five-year old life. Too young to cross the street by myself…too young to walk the dog alone…too young to stay up until 8 o’clock … and now, too young to play this enticing game. As the bitter tears filled my eyes, my father redeemed himself by drawing me onto his knee and saying, “So instead you’ll be my assistant and help me.” I sat deep in his lap, watching him create meaning from the chaos of letters on his tray. Occasionally, I would risk a suggestion – how about the word “was,” and he, never one to condescend, would ask me to consider the high value of the “w” and the wisdom of using one of only four “s” letters in the game to gain only six points. Could we not find a better placement? Should we not wait for a better opportunity? Should we squander such wealth for an immediate but lowly score?
My mother’s father Louis had died when she was a very little girl, and she missed him all her life. Even in her eighties, she and her two older sisters would retell the few memories they had of him (“Remember how Papa used to sing the Yiddish songs? Remember that time Papa brought home a live chicken?”) and I marveled at how these three elderly women, all old enough to be Louis’ grandmothers, still remembered him as their papa and thought of themselves as his daughters.
Years later, when my grandfather was at his home on Bristol Street, suffering in the last stages of stomach cancer, my mother received the call from his attendant that he had just died. For my mother, who had adored Zaida, it was like losing her own father all over again. She cried when she got that call, but she lost no time in getting ready to go to his house to see to arrangements. It was 4.30 in the afternoon, and I knew the phone would ring at 5, and that it would be my father, asking if he should pick up anything on the way home. “What should I say to Daddy?” I asked my mother, appalled that I might have to tell him that his own father was dead. She stopped for a moment and thought. Then she said, “Just tell him not to go home, but to meet me at Bristol Street He’ll know.” When, a few moments after 5 he called, I repeated my mother’s words to him. There was a pause, and then he said that he was on his way. Only that. I was crying so hard I could barely hear him, but I knew that in spite of not saying the words, I had been the one to tell him.
My father was a salesman at a telephone answering machine company – think The Bells are Ringing without Judy Holliday. All around the city, his company rented small offices, outfitted with dozens of switchboards, each switchboard representing as many as 60 businesses. An operator at each switchboard had to answer the calls with the correct name, take accurate information, and follow the instructions as to how to convey the information to the client. In a city in which it was very difficult for teenagers to find summer employment, my older cousins and my sister had all done their time as operators, thanks to my father. I was fourteen. I had my working papers. It was my turn.
My “office” was two blocks from my home, and my hours were from 7am to 1pm. I sat on a high stool in front of my switchboard and when no lines were ringing, I familiarized myself with the accounts, as my father suggested I do. In a few days, I had it down, and began to spend more time listening to the other operators – mostly retired women or housewives – as they chatted between calls.
At first they were skeptical of me. My father was in “management,” and I was a pipsqueak, so they tended either to ignore me or, with a raised eyebrow or a cock of a chin, remind each other I was listening, especially when they talked about their work or their wages.
Over the summer, I created a place for myself. I was always on time, offered to help answer lines when my board was quiet, and eagerly soaked up the operators’ stories of husbands, lovers, and boyfriends. It was True Romance, only better because I got to ask questions, although I learned not to be too eager for information. That reminded them of how old I was.
At 1pm every day, I would leave the office, get on the Flatbush Avenue bus and go straight to Manhattan Beach. There I would meet my friends who had not found jobs and got to hang out at the beach. I envied them mightily.
At the end of the summer, my father told me that he was very proud of me because I had never tried to take advantage of my position as a boss’s daughter. He also praised me because I had never once called in sick or skipped work and gone to the beach for the whole day. I was dumbstruck. I had never realized it was even a possibility.
Summer in Brooklyn could mean a bus ride to Manhattan Beach, a train ride to Coney Island, or an elevator ride to the roof. The summer I was 14, Uncle Harry, my mother’s brother, and his family, moved into our building. Mack and Harry were dear friends, in fact, Harry had introduced my parents to each other, “but,” my father liked to say, “I remained friends with him anyway.”
I look at the photos from that time and I can tell when it’s the weekend, because in every picture, whether in the forefront or the shadows, there they are, up on the roof: Mack and Harry sitting at a card table, the Scrabble board open, cigarettes in hand, dictionary at their feet, and a pitcher of iced tea covered over to keep it cool and free of bugs.
They had decided early on that any score under 300 was an embarrassment and they were rarely embarrassed. Because they were so evenly matched they needed new challenges, so one day a chess clock appeared on the table and they instituted a 3-minute limit on each turn. They would combine scores at the end of a game; 750 or more was admirable, over 800 was celebratory. Finally, they decreed that the rules governing allowable words were too lenient and they decided to disallow musical notes, foreign currencies, and anything they (not the dictionary) deemed slang. They also banned the practice of exchanging a blank tile for the letter it represented.
They were always each other’s first choice for a game, but Linda had become a challenging player and I had long been deposed from my father’s lap. I was on my own; no mercy was shown with regard to my tender age or even more tender feelings. When we played Scrabble in my family, we played to win, but also to improve.
My sister and I both attended city colleges, which were free in those days. We received excellent educations, but it was torture to live at home, especially because these were the years when the message to parents was “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.” Unfortunately, my parents hadn’t received that communiqué, and they were still attempting to exercise some say over my hours, my friends and my protest marches. They adamantly refused to let me go on the Freedom Rides (again, too young), but by the time Lyndon Johnson was bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail, nothing could keep me away from the protests on Fifth Avenue, in Washington, and at the Pentagon.
Upon graduation, my sister took off for California; when I graduated four years later, I took off for Manhattan. In addition to needing a job and an apartment, I needed a new Scrabble partner. The first two were relatively easy to come by, but I only found the third when I found Ward.
He was two years older than I. He was very sophisticated and experienced for a 21 year old: his mother had been married and divorced three times, and as a result, he had lived in New Mexico, New York, Italy and France. He had been a working actor as an adolescent, and had become sole caretaker of his older sister when she developed schizophrenia. I met him shortly after he had completed a four-year stint in the Air Force, having enlisted at age 17 to create some order and structure in his increasingly anarchic existence.
He loved to visit my parents. I think he was drawn to the warmth of their home, the stability of their relationship, and the interest they took in me and by extension, in him. He would spend hours talking with my father; Ward and I would sit with him sipping coffee after dinner and discussing politics, literature, Judaism, and more politics. My parents could not believe that he preferred to attend Columbia, where the tuition was a staggering $55 per credit, rather than CCNY, which would have cost him nothing. “It’s not only the quality of the education,” Ward would explain, “it’s the doors it opens.” He wanted to be a journalist and Columbia’s School of Journalism was tops. My parents would just look at each other. “Goyishe kup,” my mother would laugh, and then plant a kiss on his forehead. At some point in the evening, someone would ask, “Who wants to play Scrabble?” Everyone did.
I had to take him in hand. Ward’s Scrabble game was straightforward and guileless. His spelling was atrocious. All he did was put down words and add up points. I beat him every time we played. So I started teaching him the finer points of the game, just as my father had taught me. Soon, he won occasionally, then he won a lot. Then Linda returned from California.
She came back with a husband, a two-year old, and an infant. She was starved for real bagels and good Scrabble. We would bring both on the frequent trips we made from the West Village to see her and our nephews.
Once the kids were asleep, her husband would excuse himself to do his lesson plans, and she would bring out the Scrabble board. The three of us would play one game, a second, even a third. By this time, it was about 11pm. “Enough,” I would moan. “One more game,” she would counter. Ward was willing so I would lie down on the couch and watch them hunched over the board, drawing letters, challenging words, and groaning when the other one went out. As I drifted off, I would hear “go, already,” and know that Ward was taking a very long time on his turn.
When my eyes next opened, it would be to the same scene, except for the fact that dawn was breaking in the East. It was nothing for them to play until 4 in the morning, both of them dopey from sleep deprivation.
Today, all the adults who were in those pictures on the roof are dead. So is Ward. Linda and I still play Scrabble, although now I’m not the only one happy to stop after three games.
The other night, at my sister’s apartment, the Scrabble board came out and she and I played. About half way through the game, I asked if she would accept “qi” a Chinese word meaning “life force” or “energy” that is listed in the Scrabble dictionary. She looked at me reproachfully and said, “Daddy would never accept that.” Of course he wouldn’t, and of course I didn’t use it. Although we are both older than my father was at the time of his death, we are still his “girls,” and he’s still the one whose judgment and approval matter most, the one whose intelligence still guides me and whose love still surrounds me. He taught me to play Scrabble when I was five. Fifty years later, I’m still learning. As my mother would say, “geyn visn (go know).” As my father would say, “No foreign words allowed.”