When My Mom Broke Scrabble
Adventures of a crazy, Mexican lady
I had no social life in college. My hard-working immigrant parents couldn’t afford my college tuition, so I bartended at a TGI Fridays full time, leaving me with no energy and no time to go to parties and do keg stands. When I wasn’t working, I’d come home from school, catch up on my studying and then set up the Scrabble board on the kitchen counter. My playing partner was Jacqueline, a cousin who lived only two houses away because Cubans have a tendency to stick together, regardless of the country. Jacqueline was only thirteen years old but mature for her age, so much so that I'd often forget she was still a budding teenager. I would talk to her about school, bartending, boys, everything. She would sit and listen to me and offer me feedback.
“Yeah, I agree,” she would say, “You should stick to majoring in International Relations.” Or she’d say, “Well, from what you told me, John seems like a nice guy, but maybe you should give it some time.” And all this while she tried to get a Double Word or a Triple Letter.
My mom, or Mami as I call her, would sit off to the side with her Word Search puzzles, stopping only to glance at us once in a while. Before we’d start a new game, I’d offer her a chance to play because I knew secretly she wanted to join in on the fun.
“Mami, you wanna play?”
She would look up from her Word Search, push her gigantic reading glasses up to the top of her nose and shake her head. “No, mi’ja, I no sink so. I am no bery good.” Mami is from Mexico and Papi is from Cuba; both my parents speak with a heavy accent but we've never had a problem understanding them. Especially not when Mami has a sandal in her hand, her temper at a boiling point.
“Bueno, Mami," I said, "But you can change your mind.”
“Jes, mi'ja, I know.”
One day, it occurred to me that perhaps Mami was afraid to play in English because she knew she would lose. And Mami is definitely not a good loser at anything. When she plays poker or dominos, she literally crushes everyone's spirit and takes all their money. She looks innocent but she is cunning.
“Hey, Mami, why don’t we make it bilingual Scrabble? You can do words in Spanish. Que piensas? What do you think?” I looked to Jacqueline for confirmation and she lit up like a Christmas tree. Three players would make the game more interesting.
For the first time, Mami looked slightly hopeful. “Hm, I don't know, mi'ja.”
“Ay, Mami, it’ll be fun. You can put down words in Spanish and Jacqueline and I will do English, okay?”
“Come on, Hilda,” Jacqueline said. “I know you wanna play, chica.”
It really didn't take much to convince her and it took me two seconds to explain the rules because my Super Cunning Mami had been watching us the whole time and had figured out the rules long ago.
"You understand, Mami? Do you want me to explain—"
“No, no no, vamonos, let's play."
I didn’t know what to expect. My heart broke when she put down her first word. C-A-T. I reminded her she could do words in Spanish, but Mami is nothing if not competitive and determined.
“No, no, ees okay. I want to try en English, too. Who is next? Jacqueline? Vamonos! Let's play. ”
“All right, Mami, whatever you say.”
We were creaming her but she was determined, her eyebrows coming together in deep concentration as she tried to outplay us. She kept putting down words like M-O-P and T-O-P and S-I-T. I was proud of her for trying to play in English no matter what.
"You're doing great, Mami," I said.
She rolled her eyes. "No seas mentirosa!" ["Do not lie" in Spanish]
"I'm not lying, Mami. I mean it!"
"Hmph. Joo are beating me bery much, ay Dios mio." She shook her head in disgust.
It was my turn. My letters left me with few options. I considered putting down “car” out of frustration. Before I had a chance to do anything, Mami, who’d been staring at her letters as though trying to solve the mystery of the Holy Grail, sprang out of her chair and so help me God she nearly hit the ceiling. Jacqueline and I jumped from the shock.
“¡Ay Dios mio!" She said as she clapped her hands. "I have dee bess word!”
Jacqueline looked at me with raised eyebrows. "Hurry up! Your mom has a word!"
“Okay, okay, hold on, the both of you. Let me do my word first.”
But it was impossible to concentrate. I ended up putting “C-A-R” because my brain had stopped worked with Mami's explosive reaction.
“Okay, Mami, your turn.”
She bit her lip and looked at me and Jacqueline, playing innocent, of course. She took her sweet time placing the letters on the board and right over a double word tile. One by one she laid each one down with dramatic flair as though she herself couldn’t believe what she had done.
“B-E-R-D-A-, and Y! And mira, double word, sank you bery much!” She clapped her hands again and then lit up a cigarette.
Jacqueline and I looked at the word, looked at each other and then looked at Mami. She had a silly grin on her face, her gigantic glasses making her look like a very pleased mosquito. I cleared my throat.
“Mami, what is that?” I could already feel the laughter bubbling in my stomach, threatening to destroy my ability to speak. I tried not to look at Jacqueline because I knew she too was trying not to laugh.
“What joo mean, mi’ja? Berday.”
“Sí, mi’ja, like, joo know, (singing) Happy Berday to Joo, Happy Berday to joo, Happy Berday Yvonnecita, Happy Berday to joo!”
Oh boy. Jacqueline and I quite literally fell to the floor laughing. Mami, who should’ve been offended, started laughing too because that's just who she is. When she laughs, her mouth opens wide and her face turns red and there's no sound other than a rasping noise. All of which made Jacqueline and I laugh even harder.
When my stomach felt as though I’d just done three hundred sit-ups and my face hurt from laughing, I made my way back to my chair and calculated her score. No way in hell would I take “berday” away from her. She had just created a new version of Scrabble, and Jacqueline and I dubbed it “Berday Scrabble.”
She played with us every night after that. She used words like “choogar” for “sugar,” “jes” for “yes,” “choos” for “shoes.” And you know what? To this day, I can’t play a game of Scrabble or listen to the birthday song without thinking of her.