“Margi, you can knock me off!” I shouted at my sister over our first backgammon game in more than twenty-five years.
“Nah, I don’t want to,” she scooped up a handful of m & m’s and popped them into her mouth.
Middle age had certainly softened her edges. As children, we would sit together for hours, playing backgammon with an aggression that would later transfer to our Ms. Pac-Man tournaments at Sneaky Sweets, located in the heart of the Valley Girl capital of the world - Encino, California. Dinner was always the same: a nonfat chocolate-vanilla swirl soft serve, one peanut butter cookie, minus the sugar, carefully split in equal halves between us.
I’d acquired the game board on a recent Saturday foray to Target with my husband. We were perusing the aisles looking for a birthday gift when I spotted it. I snatched it up and placed it in the cart. I had not played in years, but in my mind’s eye I could still see my uncle’s proud toothy grin as I defeated my opponents, many of whom were professional athletes.
My game coach was seven-time batting champion and Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew. He approached backgammon as he did everything in life, with practice and precision, mixed with a heaping sense of humor. I’ll never forget the first time I heard about him, when he was still my aunt’s boyfriend. I was standing just outside the kitchen doorway where the adults couldn’t see me, neck craned, hoping to catch some interesting tidbit from their conversation.
“I heard Marilynn’s bringing her boyfriend to Shabbat dinner Friday night, he was voted Rookie of the Year you know,” my mom grabbed the percolator off the counter and poured some into my father's mug.
“Sha,” my grandmother Selma cried. “He’s a schwartza!” As she said it her voice went up several octaves. I knew from hearing her say that word before what it meant – black.
“Ma, he’s a person.” My dad took a sip of coffee. A small drip slid down the outside of the cup and hit the plastic tablecloth. “I’ve never seen Marilynn so happy.”
“What will people think? She couldn’t fall in love with that nice Daniel Cohen? Arlene, you’ll help me with the brisket.” It was an order, not a request.
When Friday rolled around my aunts, grandma, and mother twittered about, filling the rooms with the smells of matzo ball soup, while the men tried to keep their cool. Us kids hung a sign that read Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? for reasons we thought were pure and in hindsight, obvious. We were otherwise ignorant to the cultural significance of the film, as well as the prevalent racial tensions addressing the country at that time.
A half hour before sunset, Margi and I propped ourselves on our knees overlooking the back of the floral sofa. That vantage point offered a perfect view of any approaching cars from the huge bay window. Spotting the hulking silver Lincoln ambling up the driveway we whooped, “They’re here!”
At seven, I didn’t understand what charisma was in the literal sense, but I knew an impressive person when I saw one. He wore dry cleaned jeans, impeccably creased in the exact same spot on each leg. The slight flare at the bottom fell perfectly over the top of a mahogany colored boot, the kind that were ankle high and had to be pulled on with a shoehorn. Although it was October the temperature was milder than usual, all three buttons of his collared burgundy pullover sweater were open, and he smelled like my dad’s Brut cologne, a mix of spicy amber and lavender notes.
The whole family lined up in formation as if receiving the pope, each awaiting a chance to meet the handsome stranger. I was almost at the very end of the line because of my lack of seniority. When my turn finally came, he bent his long legs and kneeled down to my level. He took my hand in his, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Susie Q, you and I are going to be good friends.” And from that moment on, we were.
In backgammon he was a tough instructor, he never let me win just because I was a kid. When traveling on family vacations we made sure to bring the portable game board. At home, Uncle Rod had a custom-made backgammon table that seemed to weigh a thousand pounds and was constructed from a gorgeous ivory colored Italian Marble. It sat proudly in his game room surrounded by his batting titles; gleaming silver bats displayed in specially designed cases hung on one wall in a line of horizontal rapt attention.
“You can’t leave your guy alone honey,” he’d cajole as he knocked a lone red checker of mine off the board.
“I’m getting tired,” I whined. My small body slumped in the chair on my side of the game board. I wrapped my arms around my smocked yellow flannel pajama top in mock defiance.
During baseball season, I would oftentimes ride to the ballpark with him to watch him take batting practice. He was the best hitter in baseball, with a natural ability to place the ball where he wanted to, but still he worked at his game – just as with backgammon – he never took it for granted.
Margi rolled and got double sixes, “Ha! I love doubles!” I hoped for the bloodshed to finally begin, but she maneuvered around my checkers, purposely avoiding any attack.
"Did you watch ‘Housewives’ yet? They need to get rid of Vicki. She knew Brooks had cancer.” she lamented, yanking me out of my trance.
“That reminds me, have you spoken to Chelle lately?” Our older sister had moved to South Dakota. I rarely spoke to her.
Margi rolled again. “Not lately.”
“Hey, remember when Uncle Rod made us stay up all night playing game after game until he crushed both of us?”
“Remember when he had the guy in the gorilla suit pop out and scare us at that carnival in Florida?” she countered.
“No wonder I’m still afraid of the dark.” I met her eyes and asked the question we had wondered for many years, “Do you really think he had us followed in Puerto Vallarta?”
“Who knows?” She sighed, “Remember when he’d spit out his chew and purposely just miss our feet? Hilarious.”
“Isn’t it weird we’re the only two left?” I brought up, referring to the fact that we were the sole members of our previously large extended family that were neither dead, nor otherwise non-communicative. Stacking my checkers just so, I didn’t wait for her to answer before continuing, “We’re lucky we still have each other."
Margi piled her remaining game piece on top of the rest, looked at me, smiled, and said, "I won.”
Me, Uncle Rod, cousin Barbara, Margi, Chelle, Dad