Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Queen of Spades from an 1810 card deck
by Vincenz Raimund Gruner (Vienna).

My mother's mother taught me the basic game of solitaire as soon as I was old enough to count to 13 and shuffle a deck by swirling the cards in messy circles on the Formica table. We'd sit in her kitchen and snap down cards in round after round of side-by-side solitaire. The games gave my fidgety, childish fingers something to do while I listened to her stories.

The names of the places she spoke about were familiar because our family had lived around our village since before the American Revolution. But the jobs and activities Grandmother spoke about were strange to me. Men worked at the locomotive plant in the City or sharecropped in the hills. Women rose before dawn to build a fire in the kitchen stove so breakfast could be served. There was no radio, no television, and no electricity in most of the homes when my grandmother was a girl.

I couldn't imagine what people did when it got dark. Sleep, my grandmother would say, And play cards. The family always had cards. Not the waxy, mass-produced type I used for my games, but ones my great grandmother cut out of cardboard and drew with a pencil.

My grandmother said that as a child she would sometimes wake to see the lantern throwing off a glow that filled the gap between the floor and the bedroom door. She'd stumble out to find her mother bent over the kitchen table staring at a game of solitaire.

"Come to bed," my little grandmother would plead. "It's late. It's cold." My great grandmother, recently widowed and raising four daughters alone, would promise to come soon and then linger.

The story never included direct mention of what kept my great grandmother at the table those nights. But I sensed it even without understanding the details of the poverty and the times. As children we all know to fear the darkness lurking just outside the narrow glimmer of a lamp.

And now every time I click and drag a card of light across the laptop, I can't help but think of my great grandmother. She played her rounds one hundred years ago and died decades before my birth. But the chains of cards stretch out, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of her weary eyes reflected in the screen.


Julia said...

wow. What a story.
Is that a hand-drawn card in the picture? Do you have any of the ones your great-grandmother made?

Wabi said...

I wish the handmade decks survived the years. But I think as people could afford to buy more, the reminders of those rough times were happily discarded.

And the photo is one I found on Google -- thanks for asking about it, I had meant to put in the attribution of the artist, and now have done so in the post.

Antigone said...

Beautifully written. Such universal suffering.