Learning to Play Mah Jongg With My Mother-in-Law’s Set
Wanted: a fourth for mah jongg, to play Tuesday afternoons in the 2 South Social Room. Call Eudice in 273 South.
It’s been five years since my mother-in-law tacked the note she had scrawled onto the bulletin board in the auditorium at Sholom Home, the nursing home in St. Louis Park, Minn., where she lived. “I wish you played mah jongg,” said Eudice, who was 90. “Then you could be our fourth.”
Over the years, she had urged me to learn mah jongg so I could join her and her friends. But I had neither time nor interest. I had a husband, three kids and a dog. I volunteered, worked part time and, when I wanted to socialize, I had my own circle.
I was familiar with the game, because my mother, who passed away in 2004, used to play with her friends from the sisterhood of Temple Israel in Minneapolis. I remember their laughter filling the house, along with the gentle clack of the tiles when they pushed and mixed them along our oak kitchen table. My mother served a lovely lunch for her girls, often a sandwich loaf she ordered from the synagogue caterer—a bygone concoction that came with a layer of chicken salad, egg salad and tuna salad bound by Miracle Whip and lacquered with a thick coating of cream cheese studded with sliced olives.
Occasionally, the ladies were still playing when my brothers and I got off the bus, at which point we were relegated to our rooms until they wrapped up. Being ignored so she could socialize left the three of us feeling usurped by a part of her life that had nothing to do with us kids. Once, my older brother doused a piece of Kleenex with stink “perfume” from his chemistry set. He walked into the kitchen and casually tossed his homemade sulfur bomb under the table. Within minutes, shrieks filled the house, and my mother screamed, “Alan!” The ladies quickly left, and I don’t remember my mother playing again after that.
Years later, I couldn’t imagine whiling away an afternoon playing games while my kids were at school. And even when they no longer needed my daily attention, I still could not justify socializing when there were so many other things I could be doing.
Instead, I helped my mother-in-law tack up her ad, and she found her fourth. Every Tuesday, I went to Sholom Home to set the table for her game. Following Eudice’s instructions, I put out crackers and cheese, plates of cookies, bowls of chocolates, a pitcher of ice water and four large Styrofoam cups with straws. I wrote each woman’s initials on her cup so they wouldn’t get mixed up.
This went on for a few months until her health rapidly declined—and then she was gone. Her death in 2015 left an enormous void in my life. I was charged with cleaning out her room, since one of her daughters lived out of town and the other worked full time.
As I sorted through my mother-in-law’s possessions, I came across the tattered brown leather case holding her mah jongg set, her name embossed in a narrow strip of plastic adhered to the outside. Inside, the tiles were bright yellow, smooth and shiny. I was surprised to see a worn Ziploc sandwich bag holding eight extra tiles. They were painted with 1960s-era red nail polish.
I took the case home and slid it under a couch. It held a lifetime of memories for my mother-in-law, who had been a Hadassah life member like my mother and myself, and I thought it should stay in the family.
A short time later, a friend phoned to say that Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minnetonka was starting beginner mah jongg classes. Would I like to make up the fourth in her group? My three children had all left home, and I missed my mother and mother-in-law. I told my friend that I had a set and would love to learn.
At the start of the class, we went around the room and talked about our sets, most of them inherited from our mothers. We discovered that baggies of nail polish-painted extra tiles lurked inside many of our cases. We learned that the rules of the game changed often—for example, the number of jokers allowed. All of us, it seemed, had watched a previous generation connect and socialize over the exotic tiles with Chinese lettering, but none of us had ever learned to play.
Within four weeks, my group was adept enough to play one evening a month. That was three years ago. Today, we rotate houses and craft a potluck supper that includes wine, Caffeine Free Diet Dr Pepper and Maker’s Mark bourbon. One night, I even procured a throwback sandwich loaf from the last store in town that made them.
Today, we are proficient enough to play and talk at the same time. We discuss politics and find common ground. We all lost our mothers to breast cancer. We comfort each other, including me after cancer took the life of my close friend and neighbor. We share worries and emotional pain, like when our kids—there are 10 among us—break up with boyfriends and girlfriends, or navigate the minefield of long-distance relationships. One of us became a grandma, and her daughter used FaceTime during a game so we could say hello to baby Theo. Most joyously, my mah jongg ladies danced at my daughter’s wedding last spring.
And this spring, as we kept to our homes to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, we began exploring online options, so that we could play on our laptops while we Zoom or FaceTime.
Mah jongg has become a vehicle to build connections, both with my friends and with our pasts. When I reverently open Eudice’s case each time, I am hit with the smell of leather and something I can’t identify—like nothing I’ve ever experienced and can only think of as “mah jongg smell.”
I finally have responded to her ad for a fourth player.
Stacy Gallop, when she is not playing mah jongg, writes for various publications. She is working on a Jewish historical novel.