Scrabble and French Roast

It’s the tricky terms, tucked tightly here and there across a crowded board, scoring eight or ten points at the end of the game.

Those are the turns that would make us shout out, shake our heads, laugh in appreciation of one another.

Scrabble has been part of our family lore for three generations now. I like to think that love of wordplay will be passed from my sons to their children, as my mother passed it along to me.

Allow me to offer a story, a revisiting of family, a reflection through other eyes, a musing on how we may be seen… served with French Roast.

On Scrabble and Motherhood

She asked, so here goes. My top five items when I think of her, in no particular order. Hey, she’s done enough for me spur of the moment. It’s not like I could refuse her when she asked, but if I had to, she’d be okay with it.

She’s like that. Understanding. Usually. She surprises me and my brother, too. Sometimes we thought she’d be pissed at something we did or didn’t do, and then she’d be okay with it. Other times, we’d do something we thought wasn’t so bad and she’d ream us.

Dishonesty. That’s unacceptable. She likes to know where she stands. She wants reality. But some things, I have to say, she doesn’t want to hear and she’d admit it. She worries too much and she’d admit that, too. For a long time we were all she had. I get it, sort of. I’m not a parent so I suppose I won’t really get it until I’m older and know what it’s like.

Anyway, she asked and here I am. Giving you the quick list of what comes to mind when someone says “tell me something about your mother.”

Scrabble. Seriously. It must be in the DNA because I know she was raised on it. Played it with my crazy grandmother and all the time apparently. One of the things they really enjoyed doing together. Kinda cool really. Passing it along.

We played, too. The three of us. My little brother was surprisingly good and I have a better vocabulary than he does, but she pulls maneuvers that rack up the score with these tiny two and three letter words. Cryptic and sneaky, you know? Like a triple word with a Q or a Z, or using a little word like “ut” or “jo” and getting the high-scoring letter on the double or triple.

So I remember that and it was fun. She won most of the time or my brother did. Any language was acceptable – English, French, Dutch, German, Spanish – whatever. She loves her words. It’s almost an obsession with her. But it came in handy when I was in high school and I’d freeze in the clutch on a writing assignment. She’d make me talk it. And as soon as I started to talk she’d remind me I was writing, but out loud.

She did the same thing with my brother and it always worked like a charm. She would’ve been a good teacher. She is a good teacher.

So I said five things, okay?

Besides Scrabble, my mother is a lunatic for almost anything French. She talked to us in French when we were little, and it gave us the ear – me, more than my brother. And I remember we had this great middle school teacher with a little goatee, a French Canadian guy, and she used to give him crap over his accent and it was pretty funny really. But she thought he was cool ‘cuz we were learning a lot. She’d show up unannounced with baguettes and chocolate for the whole French class.

Everybody thought it was great and the teacher couldn’t say no to her. So here comes this little woman with her arms full of bread and a plastic bag with Hershey bars in it. A couple times a year – we’d never know when she’d show. She did it once or twice in high school, too. And same reaction! The teacher didn’t mind and hey, we were happy for something to eat, and she’d chat with the teacher in French and was pleased at seeing all the kids enjoying themselves.

What else?

Mmm. Filet mignon. That was the treat when she wanted to spoil us a little at dinner, and I think when she needed to spoil herself, too.

We had some hard years. I think we may have been closer to the edge than she let on, at least when we were still pretty little. She was worried a lot, and tired. I can’t remember when she wasn’t tired. I try to, and she tries to hide it, and there are moments when it’s better, I’m certain. But I don’t know if ever shakes it.

Somehow she kept going. Now and then she’d blow the budget and cook us a really delicious piece of steak – steak au poivre, made with filet mignon. Not a big piece, but perfectly cooked.

I’m smiling, you know? But there were things we couldn’t talk about or partial truths and I know that hurt her. There were things my brother and I didn’t bring up either. We knew we wouldn’t see eye to eye, but that happens in all families. Unavoidable. Mostly, we can be ourselves with her and we’re pretty fortunate.

There are some things she does that I don’t understand and like I said I suppose I won’t until I’m older and get what it’s like to have been through some of the life stuff she went through.

But mostly, there are good memories. And so many of them with food. Maybe that’s why I like to cook. My brother does, too.

Ha! Here’s one she thought I’d forget. Fourth grade. A sewing project. Can you believe that? A sewing project for 9-year-olds.

So she talked the teacher into an art project that she turned into a quilting design project and she used that to teach us about teamwork. That was cool, too. She came in for weeks, one afternoon a week, as we were designing patterns and picking out fabrics and talking about complementary colors. And then how we had to make a plan, use our resources, observe who the natural leaders were, keep within the allotted time, negotiate when we had differences.

My mom is arty. Did I say that? My little brother, too. She kept him in art supplies no matter what it cost. I know it wasn’t easy.

I have to give it to her. She pulled off a lot of cool shit with us when we were little. Maybe it was because she would give the teachers a break so they let her. Besides, she was usually smaller than we were so no one was intimidated. She’s good with kids. She was pretty good when we were teenagers, too. I think she wanted more kids. A big family. I would’ve liked that, too, but hey, you get what you get.

In fact I know she wanted at least one more. Family’s important to her. Very important. But so is independence. She won’t put up obstacles if we want to go after something.

Coffee. Oh man, I need some coffee.

I’ve been working at my new job from early in the morning until about six or seven and then I make the commute home. I’m in the Midwest now and it’s a fantastic area. It’s beautiful, too. But these hours I’m putting in are long in a different way from pulling all-nighters at school, or even partying and all-nighters.

Right. Coffee. Can’t think of coffee without thinking of my mom and those all-nighters.

I got both from her if you ask me. Staying up all night and the taste for coffee. “Un vrai caf.” She loved it when we were little and would go to Europe. All of us. Before the divorce and things changed. She loves her good strong cup in the morning. By high school, after I got back from two months living in France I wanted that morning coffee, too. It’s great stuff, you know?

My mom. I used to worry about her, especially when I was in college, freshman and sophomore years, and I wasn’t there. She counted on me for a lot and I knew it. Emotional things. Friendship in a way, but without crossing the line. That was before the guy she’s seeing. Being alone for so long wasn’t easy on her, and she dated a couple of creeps who hurt her and one nice guy who turned out to be a disappointment. Oh, and all those coffee dates. You can blame me for those, but I think she needed them. She spends too much time alone and it isn’t healthy in the long run.

Anyway, this guy is good with her. I know she has trust issues when it comes to relationships and I get it. I suppose I may as well, but this is about her. And when I think of them, my mom and the man she sees, I know they’re good together. They laugh a lot and talk in French and they seem really happy.

She seems smaller when I see her now. It’s not like I’m so tall, but she’s a tiny woman and I swear she’s shrinking. She’s getting older and it had to show eventually, in little ways, but don’t tell her I said so. She likes to pretend she’s 39 or 44. I can’t remember which. I don’t think she can pass for 39 though. 44? She could pull that off, especially with the shoes she wears.

She’s into her shoes, like a lot of women. But less so than she lets on. I used to joke with her that she’s a hoarder. There’s art and books everywhere. Oh, and shoes.

Actually, my mother isn’t very materialistic. It’s more that she’s sentimental and she sees stories in everything. And memories. I wonder which comes first. Chicken and the egg, you know? But it makes it difficult for her to let go of stuff. She looks at an object and sees a person or a time in her life or some emotion starts to take over.

Anyway, the coffee thing. That’s something about her I think of immediately and I always will. She loves Espresso especially. I made the perfect Espresso for her a couple of times. I live half a country away now, so it’s not like I can make her coffee and sit and visit, but I text her pictures sometimes and she likes that. I tell her she can call any time and I mean it. I come home at the holidays and all my friends come over and she loves it. They think she’s cool and funny. My little brother’s friends drop by, too, not that he’s little either. Shit, he was puny for years and now he’s taller than I am.

He drinks coffee, too. When we’re together, we’ll all eat and drink and tell stories. Then maybe we’ll play a little Scrabble.