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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

Playing the Game

November 15, 2004

Jo and Pat and the boys came for supper last weekend. Liver and onions and bacon for a couple of us; fried chicken with mushroom gravy for those who don't appreciate the flavour and texture of organ meats sliced thin, dipped in seasoned flour, fried gently in bacon drippings and served golden brown and slightly pink in the middle.

It was a nice meal, further enhanced by mashies, corn and glazed carrots, a simple lettuce salad and fresh dinner rolls. My enjoyment of it was two-fold, the first of which was falling off my latest diet of mung bean sprouts and diet Jello with a mighty, but satisfactory, thud; the second, but equally delightful, was that of having family at the table which most often, these days, accommodates one place setting, replete with the sad-and-sorry sprouts and gelatin, and an imploring Gibson trying, without success, to convince me that he would lo-o-ve the mung things if he could only be given the opportunity. Actually, now that I think of it, my pleasure might have had an additional couple of folds. There was the one when Andrew and Ryan (and Jo, I think) finally realized that they were not going to have to eat “LIV-er!” And then, after pie, coffee and the requisite minuet performed when more that one person deals with leftovers and dishes in my small kitchen area, several rousing games of Ten Thousand, a dice game with no age advantage and a favourite since the murky days of my youth. “Back in the olden days...” as Ryan put it.

Games of all sorts, card games like Rummy, and Whist, and Board games like Monopoly and Sorry, were always a big part of our lives back in those olden days that pre-dated television, with its assorted spin-offs. We began with the simplest: Fish, Slap Jack and War and then moved on to Old Maid and Crazy Eights. We learned Cribbage as soon as we could add - indeed, most of the games we played helped to hone our competency in arithmetic - and Canasta and Hearts and Euchre and Five Hundred. King Pedro, Russian Bank and Black Out came a little later, and the terrible cut throat game of Three, Five, Seven showed up late in our lives and nearly split our close-knit family asunder. After one memorable evening of Three, Etc, I did not speak directly to Phil for nearly a month. It didn't help that I overheard him telling a neighbour that he had been enjoying the peace and quiet.

Cribbage and Contract Bridge were my father's games and he was crackerjack at them both, especially Bridge. When we were deemed adult enough and/or intelligent enough, we were accepted for instruction in the latter. I say “accepted,” as if we had been wheedling and cajoling to be taught the mysteries of the game. In fact, Dad's pronouncement, that it was time we learned Bridge, caused each of us, in turn, to grow faint with apprehension and foreboding.

Distaining the popular bidding conventions of Blackwood or Gerber, Dad had his own convoluted system and woe betide the partner who failed to recognize his strategy. At the card table, our kind and loving father was neither. He had no patience with our tentative bidding (“You don't bid that after my demand bid for aces...you KNOW what to bid so do it!!), or our failure to finesse, or forgetting to count trump, or, God forgive you `cause Dad sure as hell wouldn't, if you happened to trump his trick! If his side won, it was in spite of you; if they lost, well, we all knew whose fault it was and it certainly wasn't his.

Unfortunately for us, Dad didn't carry a grudge and forgetting the debacle of the previous session, insisted on a repeat night after night after bloody night. In the end, most of us got to be fairly decent, even good, Bridge players, but we all bear scars and tend to tremble with anxiety when the bidding gets up into slam territory.

My daughters, Jo and Lise, loved to play cards with their grandparents and, early on, were sharp enough to give them a pretty good game, singly or in pairs. “I loved playing Crib with Grampa,” Lise tells me, “but I was deathly afraid of winning.” “Yeah, I know,” Jo adds, “if it looked like I was getting too far ahead, I'd start breaking up my hands and throwing away points. But if he caught you at it, look out!!” And then I tell them about my experiences, learning to play bridge, and we all sit around, comparing scars.

We did quite a bit of gambling when Phil and I were first married. My brother, Aksel, and a few others would come to our house for a rousing evening of penny-ante poker, dealers choice, no short raises, anyone caught bluffing loses the pot. The guys would call for manly games like Stud, and Draw, and Texas Hold `Em but occasionally dealt out the more exotic games of Seven Toed Pete and Fiery Cross. My preference was for games with lots of wild cards, like Kings and Littles, or Baseball, and Phil's farmer tan would always get a little duskier with mortification when I announced my all-time favourite, Deuces and Jacks and the Man with the Axe and a pair of Sevens Takes All. Not much money changed hands and after we'd counted up our chips, I'd make coffee and sandwiches and we'd sit around listening to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and the long-play recordings of comedians Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman.

Not all of our games were of the pasteboard variety. Long after we were much too old and dignified to be skipping or playing Hide and Go Seek, or Scrub softball, we'd be out there doing just that. One night I was out with the kids doing the Hide and Go thing and after all had apparently had been found or come home free, it was discovered that Jordan was still missing. We called and called for him to come in free but he was either so deeply hidden he couldn't hear us or he had taken the opportunity to run away from home in the cover of darkness. In either case, there was not much to be done until morning so the rest of us trooped in for cocoa and cookies. Presently, the door opened and there stood Jord, a big lip on him, looking as if we'd all just done him dirty.

“Where you been, hon?” I asked, all motherly solicitation. “We called and called.”

“Yeah, well, I never heard you. I was in the water tanker.” Good one, I thought admiringly, we'd have never even considered looking for him there. “And my bum is wet and I waited and waited and nobody looked for me and now here you are having cocoa,” he said aggrievedly and then licked the big lip and let it hang some more. “And I coulda been there til morning and you'da just let me.” Suppressing a twinge of guilt, I poured chocolate for him and stroked him out of the lip and into victory - after all, hadn't he been the last to come in free after we'd all had to give up, what a clever boy, and so on. All part of the game, of course, and reminds me of an on-going game on the checker board of Phil's and my marriage.

Phil, God rest him, was thrifty man, not much given to spending a dollar until it had been squeezed and pressed until every last drop of value had been wrung out of it. And even then, it had to be pried from his clutching fingers. I, on the other hand, have always believed that money is nothing more than a means to an end, that end being the gratification of needs and desires.

For thirty-five years, we slept in the same tired old bed with the same tired old mattress. Every time I suggested that a new bed might bring new life to our tired old bodies, Phil would go out and get another piece of used plywood and slide it between the mattress and the box spring. Finally, I'd had enough and decided, come hell or high water, we were going to have a new bed, or more novel yet, a whole new matching bedroom suite. The problem was in getting Phil to agree and that required a lot of groundwork.

Over the next month or so, I initiated a campaign of moans and groans, not all of them artificial, of tossing and turning. I professed not to be able to sleep, or, in fact, do anything else, in that awful bed, the sixth piece of plywood notwithstanding, and perhaps I should go and sleep upstairs in one of the spare rooms. Through all of this Phil stood firm on his plywood. At last, it was time to pull out the big artillery. “ Maybe, because I'm so tired all the time from the tossing and not sleeping,” I began, in a weary voice, “ I could get my mother to come out and help a few weeks...”

Two days later, we were at the Furniture Warehouse looking at beds. With the merest amount of subtle manipulation, the bed grew into a suite. And with one final scintilla of strategy, that bedroom suite metamorphed from the cheapest on the floor to the one I had decided on five minutes after our arrival. It wasn't easy but it was exhilarating, and, as we all know, it isn't whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.

Personally, of course, I believe that winning can't be too highly over-rated, either.

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