I love it when my mother beats me at Scrabble, because it proves that at 89, she's just as sharp as ever. I hate it when my mother beats me at Scrabble because she plays a crabbed, competitive game, making three or four words with each move, filling every available square, boxing us in to a single corner of the board so I'm the one who has to sacrifice, stringing out my one-point letters any old way, to open up the game. Then she really takes unfair advantage. She was holding onto the Q, I should have known, and she lands it on a triple-letter score. She's a very canny player, she knows all those horrid little words like quin and jo and ai that are to be found in the Scrabble dictionary but nowhere else in life--in real life, that is.
Unless Scrabble is real life. Or the inevitable stand-in for real life, for the conversations we never had. and at this rate, never will, about the long gone past, her early aspirations, early disappointments (a child of the Depression years) difficulties with my father, joys and regrets. The kinds of questions they ask you for your 40th reunion from college. My mother's 60th reunion (Hunter College, class of 1935) came and went. No one asked, she didn't tell.
Before each visit to her sister's house, where she lives now in a refurbished top-floor apartment (the madwoman in the attic, we sometimes tease her), I prepare my list of questions for my mother. What was your mother like, tell me about your father, where did he do his rabbinical studies, why weren't you nicer to me when I was 15 and miserable (I'm 63 now.) But once I'm with her, some mysterious force takes over--habit, custom, generation, character--and my interviews fall flat.
"What was your mother like?"
"Overworked and short tempered."
"Tell me about your father."
"He died when I was 12, I was his favorite."
It's like torturing a clam. She occasionally volunteers the odd …