The Family That Scrabbles Together…

Family

I had one of those snapshot-style, great moment-in-time experiences last night with our 14-year old and my 83-year old grandparents. Our teenager had convinced the three of us to play a board game, Scrabble, with her and we were gathered around the table for the big event.

Scrabble was the idea of an architect, Alfred Mosher Butts, and was trademarked in 1948.  Today, one hundred million sets have been sold worldwide (between one and two million are sold each year in North America alone); it is estimated that one in every three American homes owns the game in some form; and there are more than 120,000 words “that may be used in their scoring arsenal.”

The funny thing about it, however, is that my grandparents, in all their 83 years, had never, ever played it! This was to be their very first run at such a venerable old game of wordplay…and boy was I lucky to be there for it. It was beyond hilarious. Here are just a few things that were said during the game:

- (said my grandfather to no one in particular) This game will eat your lunch.

- (said my grandmother to my grandfather) Do you want to do that one? (said my grandfather to my grandmother) Yes ma’am!

- (said by my grandfather about my grandmother) She took so long I can’t remember the great word I was going to play!

- (said to my grandmother and teenager) If you’d let me choose 7 letters, I could whip this game.

- (said to all of us, several times) Whose turn is it?

- (said to my grandmother, several times) You are taking entirely too long.

- (said to no one in particular) Wish I could win.

- (said to himself) Let’s make the rules up as we go.

- (said to all of us, just once) I threw the blank ones back because I thought they were duds.

- (said to me nearly every time) Is it my turn already?

- (said to my teenager several times about the letter m) You can’t see it, but that’s a w!

Tears of laughter reigned through most of the game, which lasted just about an hour.  The memory, however?  That will last much longer.  Therefore, thank you Scrabble.

Grandma & Gene Autry

Ber 2

It is the day after Thanksgiving and the kids are everywhere. There are cousins and hide-and-go-seek and stories of our childhoods and food galore and more noise than any of us could handle on a normal day.

If anything, it is a family week around the house.  My Grandma Ber is sitting beside me here in the living room. She is 86 and, always being cold, perpetually covered in a big blanket as we talk together about “the old days.” I have heard most of these stories before, but as we talk she tells me a brand new story. We are discussing an old western comic book that my nephew has opened here on the coffee table in front of us. Something about it reminds her of what she refers to as her “first hearthrob.” She tells me that when she was young she wanted to marry the famous cowboy singer and actor Gene Autry. There was just something “about the way he wore that hat,” she said.

I know I have said it before, but just a reminder here on this Monday morning that stories are everywhere.  My grandma has a history, a life, a brain filled to overflowing with 80-something years of memories…80-something years of stories and loves and passions and anxieties and prayers and questions and wonders.  I bet your family does, too.  There are people sitting right there next to you on the couch with something to remember, a memory that will not leave them, a moment in time that continues to nestle itself somewhere deep inside their heart and soul.  When it decides to live again, it is something to see.

And who knows, you might even have a grandma who once dreamed of a famous cowboy crooner who stole her heart from the silver screen itself.

Ber

Words to Laugh By

Christmas Cookies

As I was helping our daughter gather up the things in her room that would make the journey with her to college earlier this week, I picked up a copy of Homer’s Iliad (circa 760-710 BC) from her bed. This ancient classic marks her first official college text bought for school.

And here’s the funny thing about it – it reminded me of the first book that she really fell in love with around age 2 or 3. It was a tiny little board book entitled Christmas Cookies by Wendy Lewison and illustrated by Mary Morgan (1993, Grosset and Dunlap). It would also be the first book that I remember her ever pretending to read because she had memorized what I read to her from it so many times. She loved this book, but mostly it was a sentence right in the middle that was her favorite. I would read along about these little mice and how their mother suggested that they make Christmas cookies because it was too cold and snowy for them to play outside.

We would read together through the short narrative as it rolled along in that great board book style of simplicity and sing-song rhyme. And then we would arrive at this page with the phrase, “In go the eggs now, crack, crack, plop. Oops! I dropped one. Get the mop!”

In the moment those words would leave my lips, our daughter would begin to laugh that deep, belly-laugh that only a little child can produce. It would light up the room and she would laugh so much about that phrase that we could rarely move on for several minutes. I am still not sure what it was that was so funny, but the mixture of just the right words and these little mice children having to clean up a mess were all she needed to laugh every single time we read it. To this day, all I have to do is quote that particular sentence and we fall into a fit of laughter. No idea why…

I am not sure she will laugh with that kind of abandon as she labors through Homer’s Iliad, but Lewison’s Christmas Cookies remains the first book that ever really got her attention and stirred something deep inside of her. Here’s hoping the same happens for all the books to come.

Iliad

82 Stories

82 Stories Glasses Photo

We drove to the top of Mount Scott yesterday. It’s about two hours southeast of us and a place I had never visited but often heard about. We took this drive for one reason – my 82-year old grandparents. It is near the epicenter of their 69-year love affair; a beautiful area of the world they visited on teenage dates in the 1940′s. They called us earlier in the week and asked if we would like to visit the place and see it all through their memories. We were glad to – and now more than glad that we did.

As we approached the top of the mountain in our SUV, I asked them what had changed and they looked around for a moment. “Nothing really…except the route up here,” my grandmother admitted. “It was all dirt and gravel roads back then, nothing quite so manicured and perfect and painted as it looks now. But the view, that hasn’t changed a bit. The sky is still blue, the white clouds still roll over us, the rocks and flowers are still the same browns and greens and purples, and those boats there on the lake…right there…they still look like little toys from way up here.” My grandfather, never a fan of heights, added, “Still too high up if you ask me.”

For a bit of an adventure, the kids and I decided to climb down onto the rocks below the scenic viewing path that encircles the top of Mount Scott. These rocks were slippery smooth and the purple flowers that grew between them were enticing to our youngest. The kids took pictures and laughed and poked around, being as safe as three girls in flip-flops standing on the side of a mountain can be.

When I looked back up the path to see from where we had come, I caught a glimpse of my grandparents. They may have been talking, I’m not sure, but they were holding hands and clearly peering out onto the land below, their eyes squinting through the blazing sun that was nearly at its peak in the sky above them. I told the girls to look and to remember what they were seeing. For in that moment, we were transported in time to the teenage chapters of a long-written storybook, to a portion of my grandparent’s lives lived so long ago and yet living now so close to us that all we had to do to read it was drive them up a mountain just off I-44 and Highway 49.

The stories are everywhere my friends. They just keep coming…

 

Books that Remember

Books that Remember

Books bring a common connection to uncommon situations. Here are two that have occurred in just the past 24 hours…

Standing on the damp, cool concrete while I am at our daughter’s Sunday school swim party at a neighborhood pool at 8pm Friday night and then 10am Saturday morning in a circle driveway at a garage sale in the city, there is one commonality – people who hear the word “book” and come to life.

First the garage sale driveway: the girls and I are walking among a group of tables piled high with all kinds of wares – Italian sculptures, a bag of marbles, a crocheted doll’s dress, a red kitchen mixer, poker chips, a deck of UNO cards, two NASCAR hot wheels, a frisbee, and a bowl of ceramic fruit. We comment on some of it, pick up this or that, then think for a moment, and put it back. But at the last table, there they are…stacks of books, many nice old ones with those beautifully gilded pages and hardcovers embossed with titles that resemble masterpiece works of art. This table is just for books and is clearly marked as such. I noticed a middle school favorite, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and said something about it to the kids. A young mom nearby heard the conversation and joined us in a great conversation about why this was her favorite book in the 7th grade. She is now 30 but remembers the book as though she read it last night! Amazing book talk right there in some stranger’s driveway.

Now for the pool party: a longtime friend of ours shared her family’s story of life in Lubbock, Texas and an unusually cold winter that hit the town in the early 1990′s. She clearly remembers the bitterly cold night that she came across a “Sweet Valley High” book set in Southern California and decided to grab a blanket and start reading. Four hours later she finished the last page of the book and realized that she had transported herself into the glorious summertime heat of a California fable. It worked its magic and 20 years later she tells that story and the details about the book as though she read it last night! Amazing book talk right there at a friend’s neighborhood pool party!

Books don’t just bring a good memory, they provide for its possibility and a common connection, just waiting to be made in the most uncommon situations.

The Book of People

Book of People

Monday’s blog has got me thinking more about the analogies between books (which I love) and people (which aren’t so bad either). It happened again the other day…

My brother-in-law and I met up for lunch in a hospital cafeteria. A family member was having surgery and it proved to be a good time for two busy dads to catch up while he was captive for a few hours in such a place.

The interesting thing about this hospital is its profound personal relationship with our family. This was the place where he and his sister’s (my wife) mother worked as a nurse before her untimely death more than twenty years ago. She gave her heart and soul to the place and worked the long and many times heartwrenching hours that nurses like her have given in places like this for centuries before and since. It had been her dream to do such things as far as back as her teenage years, and it fulfilled a place inside her that few other things ever did. I never knew this complicated, devoted lady and she has no other living relatives nearby, so her story for me and all of our children lies with my wife and her brother.

And now, here we are in this hospital, in the very place where she had written much of her life’s story. The moment we finished lunch and began to walk the winding hallways back to the small waiting area, my brother-in-law pointed out some favorite spots of childhood visits here, of seeing his mom do this or that…just remembering and reliving a page or two of the connections they made together inside these walls. Her memory, and his, still lingered in the shadows of an otherwise unassuming hospital hallway.

If you are in the book business, it is surprising how many people will tell you that they want to write a book, that they have a story to tell. For one reason or another most never take pen or keyboard in hand and begin the process. But let me tell you a secret that I recognized in that hospital..you’ve already started. As long as you are breathing, the story is being written. And when you are no longer here, bestseller status and wide distribution, even a publishing deal, won’t matter at all because this unprinted story will only be read by the very people who mattered to you most in the first place.

My brother-in-law simply opened one of those books that he knew and loved and read and lived…and began to read it to me. And the story of a life came to life once again.

House of Pages

“Every day, the story of your home is etching itself into the spirit and memory of your children.” – R. Dobson

House of Pages

When the girls were little, they loved to wrestle. Eventually, we turned that unbridled energy and fun into a game called Monster Trap. We would take turns being the monster, whose job it was to stretch out on the floor and pretend to be asleep (a dad’s perfect after-work toddler game, believe me), while everyone else huddled together to plan the best course of action for getting out of the room without “waking up the monster.” If the monster awoke and tagged one of them before they could get out of the room, they in turn became the monster and took their spot on the floor and the whole silly thing would begin again. It was always crazy and funny and loud and interesting to see not only how they planned their course to success, but also what would and would not wake up the monster. And, because they were young, they loved to change the rules on me nearly every week.

Since the kids are older now, we hadn’t played it in a year or more, but that changed just last night at dinner. Our youngest (age 8) was in an unusually somber mood. She described to us a disappointing day in which: her closest friend and cousin was returning home to another state after a month-long stay with us, it was too hot outside to ride bikes, it was bath night, we were eating something new and unusual for dinner, the first chapter of her new book was too boring, her scraped-up knee hurt…among other things.

I can honestly say that I have never heard this sweet kid look more downcast or share such disappointment, so later I mentioned something about our old wrestling days and she immediately got up from her chair at the other end of the table and came to my side. “Dad,” she whispered. “Let’s play Monster Trap tonight. I get to be the monster.”

When they were little, I learned quite a bit about my kids’ personalities during such games. One was quick to jump in and play pretty rough, another held back and chose her moves with great deliberation, while another often got her feelings hurt or feigned some mysterious pain so her sisters would feel badly for her and maybe let her win.

Though we are all a little older and a little wiser now, last night’s monster trap was just as much fun and just as interesting to me. I see again that we are writing and reading and living a new chapter in our lives, a new page of games and words and ways among us.
Looking back and looking ahead, I realize that our children have written themselves so profoundly into this home’s storybook. And they rise and fall, play and plan, laugh and cry, fail and succeed, hope and worry, pray and wonder on every single page of it.