On first appearance, they look innocent enough. Christmas sweaters, Santa earrings, coin purses. If you happened by, you might think them a book club or a prayer group, full of grandmothers and aunties, just waiting to pinch your cheeks.
You'd be wrong though. These are not your average grandmothers. These are my mother's people, and anyone my mother spends time with could never be anything but fun and fierce. If you've got nickels and quarters in your pocket, you're nothing but fresh meat.
The game is Rummy Dummy. At first glance, it seems simple enough: a game devised on the sequence and systematic playing of specific, pre-determined hands. Looking deeper, however, it becomes a gauntlet of seemingly impossible card combinations meant to do nothing but strand its victim while it bleeds you of all your silver change.
It's not an expensive game. It's just a quarter to join and a dime for every round you don't lay your cards down, but with each coin you drop in the bucket, your desire to quit is only tempered by the insatiable need to hear the jingle of all those coins in your pocket.
Any time I'm in town on a non-holiday Thursday (which is not often), I'm invited to the card game. I like it because it makes me feel grown-up. Contrary to popular belief, "grown-up" is not an age-thing; it's an acceptance thing. But always -- always -- there are pre-game reminders from my mother.
"You'll need to pack a lunch."
"You have to pay attention."
"Don't be on your phone, texting at the table."
"When you cut cards, leave the bottom."
"Don't be late."
I learned that last truth pretty quickly yesterday as one of the regulars showed up, late from a doctor's appointment, midway through the first hand. The penalty for showing up late? A dime in the pot, 55 points on your scorecard, and a second go-round on hand #1. That dime buys you nothing apparently.
As a lifelong careful observer of rules and devout follower of protocol, Thursdays with the girls always give me sweaty palms for at least half an hour.
While we played, I tried to stick up for one of my favorite ladies when the others were complaining about a well-played quick hand that ruined all of their plans.
"Don't be nice to her just because she's the oldest! No special treatment!" They chorused and crowed, and even she admitted, "It was kind of an ugly play... But I don't care."
"I should have known better," I thought to myself as I watched this 90+ year old woman flip a card across the table with such fierce grace that it'd put all those baseball bat flips to shame.
Over the course of three games, they complained and wheedled and poked at one another, but they also caught up on one another's lives and grandkids and holiday plans. They even cut loose a foul word or two (which only made me love them more). During lunch, they listened to my mom's update on my dad. They let her talk, they helped her cry, and they comforted her with fudge and homemade cookies and empathy that only wives and mothers and daughters who had journeyed this road can give. At the end of the day, they wrapped us in big hugs and whispered support.
I am so grateful for these women. My mother has always been private with her pain, yet they don't allow her to hide. And with each moment she shares, I see the trust she has in them -- a feat not easily accomplished. But more than just listening and comfort, they cut us no slack. They took our quarters and dimes without hesitation because that's what you do on a Thursday. And my mother would have it no other way.
I did manage to win a game, and I will tell you that I've never worked harder or been more proud of a handful of dimes and quarters. I put them back in my mother's coin purse for another Thursday with the girls. And it was money well-spent.
(Just kidding. It was totally my mom's money to begin with. I'm not quite grown-up yet.)