One of my strongest memories of early childhood is lying alone in my grandmother’s bed in the house she and Pum built in the 1930s on West Seven Mile Road in Detroit. The faint fragrance of her night cream remained on the flannel sheets tucked under my chin as I tried to stay awake, listening. At my request, the door was left slightly ajar, and I would eventually lose the battle and fall asleep to the sound of the adults playing cards at a folding table in the living room. Shadows fell on the walls from the streetlights in the alley behind her house, as the low din of conversation was occasionally broken by loud laughter or, in the case of a particularly bad hand, a cumulative groan. My parents, older brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles could be counted on to stay up until midnight playing our family’s favorite game: Pinochle.
For me, Pinochle—more than anything else—represents growing up and coming of age. I was around eight years old when I was finally allowed to sit at the table, having begged for at least two years to join the grown-ups and be allowed to play. I can still remember what my hands looked like then, tiny fingers trying unsuccessfully to fan out twelve cards, referencing the “cheat sheet” written in my mother’s handwriting: “Ace, Ten, King, Queen, Jack = Run (fifteen points). King + Queen of matching suit = Marriage (two points, four if trump).” And so on the list went, describing four Kings, four Queens, four Jacks, and a Pinochle (Jack of Diamonds + Queen of Spades, four points). I didn’t notice my hands growing over the years, but I do remember the day I realized that I no longer struggled to hold the cards.
Pinochle is where I first learned that there are all sorts of different people in the world. There are those like Uncle Ed, whose competitive nature is so strong that a bad hand or mistake by his partner could turn his whole bald head a bright shade of red and cause the veins on his neck to bulge. By contrast, there are people like Meme, my Dad’s mom, so filled with mercy and compassion that she will actually feed points to the underdog, because she can’t stand to see anyone lose. Some are like my maternal grandmother, Grandma Biscomb, whose loud, exuberant laughter served as a soundtrack for the banter and affectionate ribbing that always took place around the table. No one could get too upset over losing when Grandma was there to remind us that it was, in fact, a game. And there are the risk-takers, like my Dad, who can often be counted on to bid one time too many, ever optimistic that the points he lacked would turn up in his partner’s hand (in four-handed) or the kitty (in three-handed).
There are also trash-talkers (my grandfather, Papa), patient teachers (my mom), and those who don’t say much, but lay out powerhouse hands as they take a commanding lead of the game (Uncle Steve). They are the ones often described by the phrase “still waters run deep.” There are also people, like a few of my aunts and uncles, who don’t like competition at all and would prefer to sit on the couch and read. Indeed, I discovered early in life that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round, because the same can be said of an interesting game of cards.
Nowadays, we play the game as much for nostalgia as for entertainment. Playing Pinochle is often how we remember loved ones who are no longer with us. Papa has been gone for four years now, and Grandma Biscomb for nearly sixteen. Auntie Annie died in 1983, but her spirit is still very much alive when the cards are dealt and the bids begin. Whenever we play Pinochle, someone will recount a favorite memory of these relatives whose mark on our lives is instantly brought to mind by the sound of cards being shuffled. I love Mom’s story about the traveling all-nighter she pulled with Papa and Uncle Ed while Dad was away in Viet Nam. The game started at Meme and Papa’s house in Clawson, a suburb of Detroit, and when it was time for Mom to put her infant son (my eldest brother) to bed, the game moved to Altadena Street in Royal Oak. They played all night, and the next morning, Uncle Ed went to his office at Ford and Papa went to his job selling real estate. These stories, and others like them, are told over and over, yet I never grow tired of hearing them. There are no doctorates or academic papers in these stories—only the evidence of a close-knit family that always knew how to have a good time.
In a day where so much changes so quickly, I am comforted by the familiarity of a simple card game that serves as a catalyst to get many loved ones together in one place. When the cards are dealt, sweet and salty snacks are in bowls, and glasses of wine or pop are poured, I am delighted, regardless of whether I am dealt a good hand or a “loser.” For me, the outcome of the game is irrelevant. I look at the faces around me, weathered a bit through the years, and I know I have been dealt a very good hand.