“Yahtzee!” my grandmother shouted as she slayed another victim at one of her grueling, all-night sessions of the dice game. My grandmother was the undisputed Yahtzee queen and when unsuspecting women would visit her home, she would invariably pull them into her lair where they would leave, shaken, exhausted and beaten, in the wee hours of the next morning.
My grandmother, Evie, was a pretty unique woman. She was the matriarch of a family of five children and eight grandchildren. The family would descend on my grandparents’ home every weekend. They lived pretty simply in Chatham, New York, a small town located upstate. Their house was probably built somewhere around the time that Hasbro created my grandmother’s favorite game. They still heated with a wood stove and had an outhouse in the back for a toilet. Directly in front of their house were the cars of visiting family members.
Off to one side was a path that led to the outhouse. On the other side of that path was an old trailer that we kids like to rummage through, having convinced ourselves that there was all manner of hidden treasures to be found. Sometimes we got lucky and found some loose change or a stick of gum. Payday!
In front of the trailer was a huge mound of dirt. When we were kids and the adults wanted to get rid of us, my grandmother would hand out pie pans, bowls and old spoons and tell us to go make mud pies. We had so much fun doing that. I kind of feel bad for kids nowadays. They no longer know the creativity involved in taking dirt, mixing it with water then squishing it between your fingers and molding it with the pie tin to make deluxe mud pies with a worm on top for decorative inspiration. I wonder if they have mud pie smart phone apps? Probably not.
On the other side of the cars was a huge lawn where we would have cookouts in the summer and an enormous backyard with a tire swing my grandfather had made for us, the tree with the tree fort we kids had built, and a creek that ran along the boundary of their property. Behind their property were train tracks. The rumbling, whooshing and clanking as they traveled by was just part of the normal background noise of my youth.
When you walked into the house, you could smell the burning wood in the wood stove, my grandfather’s chewing tobacco that he spat into a coffee can by his chair and my grandmother’s cigarettes. There were also the remnant scents of meals going back the forty years my grandparents had owned their home.
My grandparents’ furniture was homely and worn. Making the cover of House Beautiful was not on their agenda. On the tray my grandmother kept by her chair was an ashtray, her cigarettes and her ever present cup of tea. My grandmother was so addicted to caffeine that if she didn’t get her daily dose she would suffer the most terrible headaches. Yahtzee, tea and pain killers were how my grandmother coped with the many failings in her marriage and life.
The kitchen was small with a kitchen table that had seen better days, an old refrigerator, some cupboards and a sink. When we had dinner there, we kids would stand on wood boxes and do the dishes. My parents used to kid that that was the reason they had us.
Upstairs there were four bedrooms. My grandparents had a very odd relationship. They slept in separate rooms for the whole time I knew them. I would later find out theirs was not a very happy marriage. However, they remained together their whole lives. Their generation didn’t divorce; they endured. In fact, they didn’t fight at all, that I ever saw, so perhaps the separate but equal life they lived worked for them.
The two other bedrooms were filled with stuff left when their kids grew up and moved out. My grandfather’s room was off limits to us kids so we never went in there. My grandmother’s room was as worn as the rest of the house and it contained the only radio in the house. My grandmother’s room was my favorite place to hide.
The family was comprised of my mom, Dottie, my dad, Red, my uncles, Charlie, Hermie and Mike, my aunts, Kay, Tyke, Cathy and Elsie, my cousins Butchie, Charlene, Peter and Laurie, and my sisters Sue and Sandy and then there was me of course.
Saturday nights at my grandparents’ house saw two groups form. My grandmother and whoever she snared to play Yahtzee formed one group. My grandfather’s ongoing game of Penny Ante, which was a poker game played for pennies by the men in the family, was the other.
The men played in the living room, taking turns chugging on a bottle of my grandfather’s homemade rhubarb wine he made in a little still he had in the basement, and smoking cigars. I once nabbed a bottle of my grandfather’s wine when I was in high school. My friends and I took it to a fort we had behind our houses and took turns drinking it. It didn’t seem like much was happening until I stood up. Then the whole fort began to spin and I had to be carried home. Thank God my parents were out! Grampy wasn’t messing around, white lightning couldn’t a hold a candle to this stuff.
The air was filled with smoke and my grandfather’s dog, Lady, would wander from chair to chair lusting for any fallout from the snacks my grandmother put out for the men. You would have thought they were playing at a Vegas casino the way they shouted, whooped and hollered.
The women retreated to the kitchen with their score sheets, little plastic cups and dice. My grandmother put out coffee and pie while she sipped her tea at the head of the table like the regal queen she was. You could hear sounds of the dice rattling in the little cups then spilling out onto the table along with the scratch, scratch of pencils keeping score. The women would gossip about anyone who wasn’t there and tattle on all the rotten things the men had done that week. The cries of Yahtzee! were frequent and, almost always, from my grandmother. The women in my family knew better than to try and beat her too often. They just didn’t have the heart.
We kids would be shooed out of the way to a corner of the living room with dominoes and sugar cubes or sent outside in nice weather. The sugar cubes were my grandmother’s idea of candy. We would suck on them till they broke into sweet, crunchy dust in our mouths. Occasionally we would hear the shouts of “Yahtzee!” from my grandmother and the men cursing over the pennies they were losing.
Some of the kids played dominoes or went outside to play but I liked to go upstairs to my grandmother’s room and listen to the top 40 on the radio. As the night wore on, one by one, the kids would nod out on the couch or in my grandmother’s room. The adults would continue playing until the pennies were all lost and the women begged my grandmother for mercy. They’d come and gather us all up, fathers tossing kids over their shoulders and mother’s helping the Queen clean up. After we left the Queen would slowly ascend the stairs to bed, pleased with another night of vanquish. Even now I can still hear her cackling and shouting “Yahtzee!” in my dreams. Long live the Queen!