While other children were doing puzzles and cutting out paper dolls, we were learning how to be card sharks. We played those typical childhood games and owned baby dolls, but Mother’s passion was cards. And, we didn’t just play cards; we devoured them. The three of us sat on the floor of our apartment and learned almost every card game in the book from Mother before we turned five.  We started with Go Fish and gradually graduated to Crazy Eights, Gin Rummy, Canasta, Poker, Solitaire, War and Hearts.

We only needed to know two colors-black and red and the numbers two through ten. We learned about the four symbols-heart, spade, club, diamond; the three face cards-king, queen, jack; and the ace in all of its splendor. And, when we had accomplished the basics in the simpler games, we learned the most revered game of all-Bridge-the quintessential card game of adults.

Sitting at the card table, hauled out only for company or for a bridge game, my sister and I, barely tall enough to reach the floor with our feet, sat in the matching folding chairs next to each other. Our parents rotated sitting across from us as partners.We learned to count the points in each hand and remember which cards we played. We learned to keep score, strategize and bluff. Poker was not the only game that relied on bluffing and as we improved, we often bluffed our way to victory, or lost trying.

Our hands were almost too small to hold the thirteen cards of a bridge hand, but somehow we managed and initially with desperation and eventually with practice, we counted our points without our fingers, or pencil and paper, to help tally the total number held in our hands.

“Don’t let anyone see your cards,” Mother repeatedly said at each setting. One innocent look at the bared cards could be just enough to tip the outcome of the game. Seizing an opportunity to cheat, whether on purpose or not, was unacceptable. Bridge wasn’t just a game of skill, but one of honor as well.

The bridge lessons were simple and precise. The ace was worth 4 points; the king was worth three, the queen-two, and the jack-one. Clubs were a minor suit; spades were a major suit. Clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades was our mantra. We had to memorize this sequence from least to most valuable. This basic knowledge laid the groundwork for bidding, playing and scoring. It was the one rule we had to remember without exception.

“Count your cards. Get your trumps out. Don’t forget about transportation,” Mother and Daddy repeated each time we played so the rules became ingrained in our minds as naturally as we learned one plus one, equals two.  Little did we know that we were being schooled in higher cognitive thinking that would prove useful as adults? There was mathematics, short term memory, strategic positioning, collaborative sportsmanship and best of all in my mind, spirited competition.

This wasn’t typical child’s play, but the careful guidance of parents who provided a value beyond the mere setting down of cards on a table. We learned how to play and how to win, and at the same time, we relished in and benefited from the undivided attention of the two people we loved the most. Mother and Daddy argued frequently over how to approach the lessons, but it was often more good-natured than mean-spirited. The arguments never ended in a real battle of words, but rather demonstrated a shared battle of wits and talent, ending in victory or defeat.

Both of them played throughout their lives, but Mother was the more serious and dedicated bridge player of the two and went on to become a Life Master. Few of her opponents or partners matched her intelligence or skill at the bridge table. Charles Goren would have been proud.

Throughout my childhood, I listened to her on the phone recall the previous night’s game with her partner. Sitting at a table with the black earpiece attached to the side of her head, scorecard in hand,  they reviewed every hand, remembering in detail who held which card, who played which card and who won that particular trick. Her skill at almost total recall was an incredible display of genius. Her ability to take a less than stellar hand and win was unparalleled. “You play the hand you are dealt,” she often said. I am certain she meant it to apply to all of life’s experiences, both good and bad.

I was never that good. I played competitive party bridge with friends throughout college and now.  Party bridge is not necessarily for the serious, but the duplicate tournament bridge played by my Mother played, was the real deal.

Now at the bridge table, my friends and I laugh a lot and share our tales of joys and woe. We eat, drink and play throughout the evening, until one of us declares, “This is my last hand. I have an early meeting tomorrow.” At the end of the evening, we acknowledge the winner with a small gift, culminating in the delicious combination of friendship and sport that has been ours. At times, we salute Mother when one of us made an all, but unmakeable bid.

“Your Mother would be proud,” one of them says. “You played that great.” I smile in proud response. For me, it is not the skill that I treasure, but the gift of love that I received at the bridge table.  The time, the patience and the tenacity with which she taught me a complex and difficult game was uncommon, yet common at the same time.

Occasionally, when I am fortunate enough to have been dealt what is referred to as a beautiful hand, the hand that matches perfectly with that of my partner’s, and I make that ultimate and rare grand slam by taking all thirteen tricks, I think of my parents,
particularly my Mother, and I say in salute, “Thank you, Mother. Thank you for being my very own Queen of Hearts.”

When my Mother died, my brother, who arrived later in her life and never learned to play bridge, was in charge of the inscription on her gravestone. We decided that we would have the symbols of the card suits inscribed there. Not realizing there was a certain order in place for the listing of those suits, my brother randomly listed the suits. It was not until I visited my mother’s grave for the first time after her death that I realized the inscription was in the wrong order. No clubs, diamonds, hearts spades, but a completely wrong order. I laughed and thought, Mother would literally roll over in her grave if she saw the mistake, but I took comfort in knowing that if somehow she knew the mistake was made, she would know that it had not been me.  Clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades. Ingrained. Ingrained. Ingrained.