The Tiles That Bind

By | October 21, 2018

My sister greeted me in the driveway with a glass of wine, a quick hug and the words, “It’s your turn!”

I’d just driven 12 hours for a family reunion at my mother’s house in West Virginia, and with no further pleasantries, I took my place at the kitchen table and began arranging my letters. At Mom’s, we always played on the same Scrabble set we had used since we were kids, its maroon-edged board as creaky and familiar as a favorite chair. I rubbed the worn tiles between my fingers like worry stones, looking for words.

I found a word and stacked it squarely over another, which merited a chorus of “good geometry!” The game then resumed in silence, all of us concentrating on our trays — in Scrabble, the only conversation tolerated follows a prescribed commentary on the game at hand.

After a jam formed in the upper-right corner of the board, my brother put down a long but low-scoring word that broke away from the gridlock. He offered the standard disclaimer, saying he wanted to “open up some territory.” Everyone nodded in agreement that his sacrifice was “for the good of the board.”

Like many zealots, we are decidedly old-school when it comes to our preferred pastime. Flipping the tiles over one-by-one at the end of the match (no velvet bag for us!) provides a quiet moment of collaboration, leaving the set ready for the next game. And we are ever ready. A famous family snapshot features my sister and me huddled over the board one evening, indifferent to the fiery sunset behind us — at the Grand Canyon.

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“Tile laid, tile played!” my mother would sing, when someone put down a word, then saw a better one and wanted a do-over. If no one declared a challenge to a dubious play, it was nevertheless added to the “List of Questionable Words” to be looked up at the end of the game, to ensure the “integrity of the language.” We never used a timer, but if a player took too long, he or she would get “dinged,” with a resounding tap of my mother’s pen on her wine glass.

Not long after that reunion weekend, we began a new game and my mother asked how many letters she should draw to start. “Really?” I scoffed, “Do you know how many thousands of games we’ve played in our whole lives?” She tried to pass it off as a joke, but I sensed something was wrong.

In the ensuing months, she became more fearful and anxious, which manifested in increasingly weirder ways. She once accompanied me to rent a bicycle, and I heard her imploring the shop owner, sotto voce, to lie and tell me that riding without a helmet was against the law. I was 48 years old.

For the next couple of years, the signs became more conspicuous. During a visit home, friends of hers pulled me aside to ask if I’d noticed the changes in her behavior, how she’d been forgetting things and repeating herself more often. Until then I’d thought the memory lapses were simply age-related, and suggested she slow down a bit, concentrate more and get some rest.

Our family ethos has always been one of independence and self-sufficiency, so I assumed this problem, like any other, could be solved with a little more determination. But I wasn’t ready to face the hard truth: This was a game that could not be won.

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We continued playing Scrabble, as we’d always done, and I held out hope that her acuity with words was evidence that her forgetfulness was perhaps temporary. Anyone who had memorized all the acceptable two-letter words and who routinely laid down 30-point plays surely did not have something wrong with her brain.

But as her world became smaller, her words became smaller. In one game, she played GET for six points, a score so pitiful it would have earned her some good-natured ribbing in the past, but instead it was met with polite silence around the table. I glanced at her tray (an egregious breach of decorum) and saw I-N-L-A remaining. She could have spelled GELATIN, ELATING or TAGLINE, garnering a 50-point bonus for using all seven letters — a move she once would have gleefully talked about for days.

We kept an online game going concurrently with the ones we played in person, and she started emailing multiple times a day, sometimes directly urging me to take my turn, and other times dropping a hint by making a reference to our game in progress. She’d often comment on a word I’d played in my previous turn, as a way to remind me to keep things moving, sending emails like: “UNRIP is defined in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary as ‘to rip open.’ I would think that to ‘unrip’ would be to close a rip.”

That sort of lucid logic renewed my hope that she would somehow rebound, or at least plateau for a while. I liked that she kept the dictionary by her computer at all times, mistrusting the online version. It was as though she still had confidence in her methods, even as her mind was failing. Her humor and curiosity were still in there somewhere, and the dogged cheerfulness with which she accepted repeated drubbings (“You’re walloping me, but I never give up!” she’d write) was both heartening and sad.

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At some point she began taking several days between turns. When I’d ask her about it on the phone, she’d say her computer wasn’t working, but I knew she was covering up for the fact that she had forgotten how to access the website, despite my frequent tech support and the instructions I taped to her desk. I would hang up and hope that this overturned tile in her brain would reveal itself and our game would resume.

I knew that one day my mother’s words would disappear entirely. Our enduring connection, this fiendish devotion to our favorite game, was slipping away. I wished I could bring her back, and that doing so would be as easy as sliding the tiles into the box, turning the page of the score pad, and starting again.

But there would be no new games, no more turns, no trading letters and hoping for a better play the next time around. And do-overs are strictly prohibited.

“Tile laid, tile played,” I can hear her say.

Cheryl Graham is a graphic artist and writer living in Iowa City.