Most Memorable: September 2014
I’ve pulled the Yahtzee game from the top shelf of a hall closet, where my mother has kept it in her home for more than 30 years.
“Don’t open that box,” Mom warns me, when I carry it into her bedroom. “It will make you cry.” But I ignore her.
I set the game on a card table near her bed. My mother can’t play anymore. The cancer has left her too weak to even throw the dice. She sits propped up against a pillow, her birdlike hands picking nervously at her comforter, watching me with wary eyes. I lift the lid of the well-worn box and pull out the score sheets.
Back in the 1970s, my family began an odd tradition of saving our used Yahtzee scorecards, and now I’m sifting through a stack of them about 50 deep. We never threw them out, even after we’d filled out all of the squares on the Yahtzee grid, because along with our tallies we would jot little notes in the margins. Usually we’d record the date, the location (“at grandma’s house!”), and any significant events (birthdays and anniversaries pop up with regularity). Sometimes we would editorialize on our opponents’ skill (or lack of it) and whatever else came to mind as we waited our turn.
Over time, the scribbles became an account of our family history, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or ancient cave drawings. I dig through the pile and find the first entry, penned by my younger sister. Next to her name she’s written, “Sitting in Portland, Oregon in the Explorer. August 25, 1976. It’s cloudy.”
I remember this particular vacation well. That summer, Dad and Mom decided it’d be fun to haul their three teenage daughters in one of those block-long RVs—the aforementioned Explorer—and drive north, up the California coast from Los Angeles, until we ran out of time or patience or both. I was 15 and spent most of the trip in the back of the coach, stretched out on a 1970s harvest gold plaid sofa bed reading Harlequin romances and ignoring Mom’s constant pestering to get my head out of the book and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Once, when I did happen to glance out the window, I saw the Explorer nearly take out a Ford Mustang. Dad had changed lanes, and the big RV sent the small convertible careening off into an adjacent field.
“That was the trip when your father decided to shave half of his face,” Mom recalls now, still watching me pore over the sheets. Typical Dad. Freed of his confining corporate job, he would attempt to grow a beard every time we went on vacation, driving my mother crazy because she thought his stubble made him look like a bum. For this road trip, he decided to appease her by shaving just the right side of his face, so from the passenger’s seat she’d see only his clean-cut profile.
We lasted in the Explorer for two weeks, and we played a lot of Yahtzee. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Yahtzee involves both strategy and luck, just like it says on the box. It’s not chess. It doesn’t take a huge amount of brain power. You just roll the dice, hoping you’ll get three of a kind, four of a kind, or some other winning poker-like combination, and calculate your total on a grid. The player with the most points wins.
There’s just enough skill required to keep it interesting. Should I use the three 6s and the pair of 3s I rolled to fill in the square for a full house? Or knock out the three of a kind in case I don’t roll another one? Roll five of a kind, and you have yourself a Yahtzee – 50 fat points on the score sheet. Chance, where anything you roll counts, is the gimme box. Only losers blow their Chance early in the competition.
Many matches were held during our annual Christmas vacation in Lake Arrowhead, a mountain resort a couple hours’ drive from L.A. The trip became a rite of winter that began when my sisters and I were in our 20s and continued as we added on husbands and assorted nieces and nephews. You can see the family grow as new names appear on the score sheets.
Looking at the pages now, I laugh at the sibling rivalry that spills over into the margins. Even my weary mother manages a smile when I read her the highlights.
My two nephews use the scorecards to ridicule and goad each other. Jack, the eldest, provides the most colorful commentary, delivering play-by-plays in the third person as if he were a sports broadcaster.
“Jack gets defeated in first round but comes back with a total elimination of his opponent with better score of 304.”
“Worst score belongs to Joey. No full house, no Yahtzee, no 4 of a kind. Didn’t even get his bonus. Didn’t roll enough fours. Put a zero in 1 columns – sure sign of a desperate player.”
“Joey is going to lose face.”
There are random observations about the goings-on at the cabin that take me back years. My sister, a frequent contributor, describes my brother-in-law’s especially unlucky New Year’s: “1-1-97. Jim fell ice skating and got a ticket and fell skiing.” Then, as an afterthought, she adds: “cut himself shaving.”
Near the bottom of the pile, I find a sheet with my ex-husband’s name, and the date: 12.31.92. “I’m winning big,” he’s written below his score. I study his entry, thinking about that long-ago New Year’s Eve at the cabin and wondering how we went from playing Yahtzee like a couple of kids to divorced strangers who no longer speak. Conscious of my mother’s watchful gaze, I show no emotion.
I flip through the remaining sheets. There are a lot of matches between Mom and the grandkids. They continued to challenge her at Yahtzee, even after they grew too old for other games. They’d visit on weekends home from college or when they were free from their jobs and play on her kitchen table. It was a comforting sound, the rattle of dice and gleeful shouts when all five dice matched. One of them—I can’t tell who—has written: “Grandma had 366 – thinking of taking her to Las Vegas and having her play craps.” When I read this one to my mother, she laughs, forgetting her pain.
Eventually, I come to a half-completed card with my nephew’s name on it and a message delivered in childish print: “8-8-98. Grandpa died yesterday. I am so sad. He was a good man.”
“Oh you found it,” Mom says. She looks at me closely. This, I realize, is why she didn’t want me to open the box. Frail as she is, she still wants to protect me from life’s hurts—from the losses that can come from the lack of luck or strategy or just plain chance. A lump rises in my throat, but still I do not let her see me cry. I am her protector now.
I start to put away the game, to pack up nearly four decades of memories in an old Yahtzee box, but something stops me. Perhaps it’s the sight of my mother, looking so tiny and childlike in her over-sized king bed.
I pull a pen from my purse and pick up one of the last unused scorecards, even though I know there will be no game played today. Carefully, I write her name in the upper corner of the sheet. Mom. And that is all I write.