It’s a hot summer evening in July. My house is torn up because a storm-induced remodel is still in process. It’s not even dark out, but the television is on, and a familiar theme song plays, followed by the exuberant intro in Johnny Gilbert’s voice: “THIS IS JEOPARDY!”
Instantly I’m ten years old, sitting on the ancient beige chintz sofa in my grandparents’ den, racing with my grandfather to see which of us could answer first, while my grandmother made comments about which of us should know the answer. I didn’t know, then, that their daily viewing of this television show was part of my grandmother’s attempt to ensure that my grandfather’s brain remained stimulated and active.
Games were a part of our family life long before my maternal grandparents were truly old, though. My earliest memories include sitting on the top steps of their house, hidden by the china hutch that was placed against the railing, watching as Grandpop, Grandmom, my great-aunt Molly, my mother’s cousins Virginia and Anthony, and sometimes my great-uncles Dominic and Joey, chatted and teased each other during games of Pinochle (they were the last generation who played it) and Canasta. I remember the smell of cigarette smoke and the way it spiraled around the aroma of the strong espresso made in an old copper coffee pot. I remember the sound of the cards flipping as someone riffled them, and the softer, more rhythmic sound as they were slapped onto the vinyl tablecloth.
But mostly, I remember the laughter and the feeling that these were my people, and perhaps a wistful foreknowledge that these were games I’d never get to play.
I got to play other games, though.
Children’s games came first – Chutes and Ladders, Sorry, Uno, and Candyland, when I was very young, Life and Battleship and elaborate model railroad sets as I got older – and then… then we got into word games.
My grandfather and I were both Scrabble demons, and my grandmother held her own. (I spent time playing the same game with my mother and her new beau over the past couple of months. He was a gracious winner and an equally gracious loser, and I told my mother he was a keeper.)
As an adult, married to someone who also came from a game-playing family, our repertoire broadened. We added a Gin-Rummy-like card game called Phase Ten to our staples and played lots of cooperative games where we had to flee pirate ships or survive zombie apocalypses, and of course, at some point, I dabbled in improvisational comedy as well.
You’re probably thinking, “this is all very sweet, but why are you sharing this.” It’s because my grandmother (who likely got the idea from an article in the Reader’s Digest) was right about games being stimulating. Just as playing helps babies and toddlers to form connections and expand their minds, it also helps adults – all adults – keep their brains active. Phone games are one way that older adults can do this but playing games with other people also provides a social outlet. It’s not just the structure of the game, but the conversations that happen between turns, and the memories that pop up:
“Hey, this reminds me of the time Pop decided that babysitting you kids meant giving you ice cream while he watched the fights [boxing] on TV.”
“Don’t you remember how Aunt Millie would always insist that Italian words were allowed in Scrabble, even though she couldn’t spell them correctly?”
“Your mother and aunts used to tease their cousins whenever we played with the old Märklin trains. ‘Put your finger right there, Joseph!’ They were trying to get him to put his finger on the live middle rail. It wouldn’t have hurt him… just a buzz.”
My grandmother’s concerns about my grandfather’s state of mind would turn out to be unfounded. The man had a brain like a steel trap to the day he died. What he lost, as he got older, was dexterity and vision. He couldn’t shuffle the cards any longer, nor could he read the tiles on the Scrabble board. Interactive game show viewing was the closest equivalent to family game night that he could manage.
It’s another hot summer evening, now August, and I have the television on while I’m working. I usually just use it for streaming music, but tonight I’m half-watching Jeopardy. In my head, I’m envisioning a twinkly white version of the set in Heaven, as my grandfather, my stepfather, and Leonard Nimoy (who adopted all his Twitter followers as his grandchildren before he died) in a highly competitive game with Alex Trebek at the podium. It ends in a three-way tie. As it should.