Margo plays Rummikub with reckless abandon. She’s willing to rearrange the whole board for a chance at a winning move, willing to risk the penalty tiles, hoping to rely on her seemingly photographic memory to put the board back in order if her multi-split moves don’t work. She surveys the tiles in play, takes it all in, splits several runs and sets, sits back, evaluates, and if it doesn’t seem right, she quickly puts it all back again. How? I'm inspired by my nine year old, though I still play it safer than she does.
Rummikub — a hybrid of mahjong and rummy invented by a Romanian-born Israeli in the 60s — is relatively new to our family, at least in the recent past. It came back into our lives last summer, as we were preparing to help my grandma sell the house that she and my grandpa built in Franklin in 1967.
The Franklin house is its own character in my family’s story. The lights were warm and yellow, with soft brown wood, the coziest blanket that my cousins and I always rushed to get first, a walk-in kitchen pantry that I used to hide in to record my own “radio show.” My aunts’ old bedroom, with its metallic wallpaper and wall-to-wall orange shag carpet , was what I’d imagine it would be like to walk into the 1970s. The Play Room, turned Computer Room, was where, most recently, my cousins, brother, husband and I constantly negotiated whose turn it was to fix the printer or the modem. Bookshelves deep enough for two rows worked out well for my grandpa, who was always reading, all the time, until the very end.
The Franklin house anchored us together. Part of processing its loss has been anticipating how we will connect without the pool in the backyard and that long white kitchen table. Who are we without the place to which we all returned, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, to the same bagels and lox with the New York Times strewn about, to the same Buddy’s Pizza after a long day of swimming, to the same gefilte fish, homemade in Grandma’s Cuisinart? Who are we without the Davis Swim Club, where generations of kids and then their kids learned to swim?
As we were going through almost 60 years worth of belongings to prepare for the estate sale, I happened upon the Rummikub set that belonged to my Nene (great grandmother) on the floor in the library, sitting on the carpet between a stack of silver platters (gifts from my grandparents’ 1951 wedding) and piles of linens embroidered with their monogram. I remembered playing the game with my father as a child and asked if I could take the set home to teach Margo. We found another set, too, and Grandma took that one to her new apartment in West Bloomfield.
This discovery has spurred the purchase of at least five new sets across two states. Some splurged for the “retro” wooden sets, while others settled for the basic blue plastic. The advantage to the wooden sets is that the racks are taller, so your opponents can’t see how many tiles you have left to play. With Grandma’s set, one of the racks is broken so each time we play, we configure our own precariously balanced rack with stacks of books. I have my Nene’s wooden set, complete with a yellowed rules booklet and an address in Plano, Texas, you can write to send away for replacement pieces. My Nene was Margaret, Margo's namesake. The Franklin house and its contents, where neither Margaret nor Margo ever lived but both loved, continues to keep us together.
I don’t remember the first round of Rummikub. The days of last summer, the way we held onto every possible strand of life connecting us to the Franklin house, the way we brought our own tables and chairs from our homes once the furniture had all been sold so we could have one more meal there. Those long days blur together for me, stretched out with that pull that comes from knowing those were the last times.
Once we started playing Rummikub, it was constant. Margo spent summer days playing against herself to refine her skills. She went from learning from us to regularly beating my husband and me in about two weeks. My mom, Grandma, Margo and I have been playing four-generation games for the last few months. Most often, the child wins, though not always. She’s quick, and her memory is better than any of ours. I used to be salty when she beat me, over and over again. Now, I do my best to admire it. My mom is also a fierce and sneaky competitor, often keeping a low profile until she plays all her tiles in one swift move and triumphantly declares, “Rummikub!” when everyone leasts expects it. Grandma is a strict rule follower, often reminding us that some of our moves might not be acceptable to the very serious drop-in Rummikub players at her retirement home.
Margo taught my brother, who was visiting from Florida. He’s brilliant and also rather competitive by nature, so after one introductory game, he wanted to play again and again until he won. At one point, she turned to me, delighted, and exclaimed, “Mama, he has a great sense of humor!” He does, and so does she, and seeing them play together reminded me that the house may be gone but what’s next is going to be special, too.
He went home to Tampa, bought a set for his family and sent me a photo of my nieces and nephew playing in their living room. They’ll be back in Michigan for our grandma’s 90th birthday next month, ready to play. I imagine it will be a loud, boisterous game full of potentially invalid sets that would never be allowed by Grandma’s friends at her new home. I imagine the kids will ask us to look up the rule book as they try to outdo each other's big moves. I imagine they’ll talk the adults into giving them treats while they play. And it will be messy, and it will be perfect.
My brother-in-law's family came to visit from Boston and Margo taught her cousin to play, so now their grandparents in Bloomfield Hills have a set so the families can all play together. My aunts, in and out of town over the summer, sat down to play with us and Grandma by the pool. My Detroit cousin and her boyfriend taught his family to play. My Berkley cousin, one of my Florida cousins, Margo, and I had a sleeping bag sleepover at the Franklin house after all the furniture had been sold. We stayed up too late with snacks and Rummikub on the kitchen floor. That Florida cousin and her fiance now have their own set, too.
When everyone is back together for Grandma’s birthday next month, I will frantically take photos to capture every single combination of players — all while reassuring everyone that I won’t share pictures with their tiles until the game is over.
We’ll miss the Franklin house forever. It’s only been a few months and I don’t think any of us have really even started to acknowledge it yet. But also, our connections are broader and deeper than that sprawling yard, that stately house, and everything we loved inside. I don’t know what our gatherings will look like now. But I know I love the sound the tiles make when we turn the box over and they all spill onto the table.
Or maybe I just love knowing that the game is about to start. Or maybe, and most likely, it isn’t really about the game at all.