And Tiles to Go Before I Sleep

Scrabble is a near contact sport in our family. I’m fairly mild mannered but put a pale wooden rack before me, fill it with letter tiles and stand back. When it comes to Scrabble, I’ve been known to go for blood.

Recorded in the tattered cardboard cover of our Deluxe Scrabble Game are the scores of every game my husband and I have ever played. That’s thirty years of word-sparring, near pointless Old MacDonald hands (all EIEIO’s), even the ebb and flow of our lives as parents. The early years of our marriage reveal columns of games. Come ‘84 and ‘87, the years the kids were born, we barely played. Starred in red is the highest score (mine, at 529 and the lowest, also mine — 136).

Home on college break this past December, my daughter went on a Scrabble bender. Emma wanted to improve her game and what better way than to take on Mom? “Don’t hold back,” she said, determined to win fair and square. And while I would never throw a game, how could I go for blood against my child? I wavered more than once. Friendly competition felt mean-spirited with my daughter on the other side of the board. Emma was determined to win the old fashioned way — through perseverance and hard work. The best way to support her was to play no differently, to play to win.

Em is a solid player; she knows those consonant-free oddities — ae (one), oe (a whirlwind off the Faeroe islands) and ai (a three-toed sloth). I taught her jo (sweetheart), bo (pal) and wo (woe). Game by game she honed her skills; her words grew more complex as did her playing speed. She began placing words that scored in two directions. Her scores rose from the mid-200’s into solid 300 territory; every now and then she managed the game’s holy grail — a seven-letter word, sometimes into a hot pink triple word spot. She squeaked some wins past me and trounced me, too. Every time she lost (always gracefully, never petulantly) she would turn the tiles face down and ask, “Again?” I’m not a sore loser but two in a row is my limit. For Emma, two losses were mere appetizer. The irony was that as she improved, I had to up my game as well — a true turning of the tables if there ever was one.

Our words took interesting twists, some dancing near once-loaded topics. Bitchy, she played. Toke, I countered. Her eyes widened. I smiled. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell moment passed. Emma played orgy into a triple word space, placing the “y” so that it turned an adjacent la into lay. We laughed at the board’s own joke. OK, orgies are beyond the pale; but in a broader context, sex was no longer a third-rail topic.

There were, however, other generation gaps to bridge. Our well-thumbed Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary had ziti but not zit; for the u-less it had qaid (Muslim leader) but not qi (Chinese concept of life-force energy). Out came Emma’s laptop to buttress zit and qi. Blog, too.

Our last game Emma advanced like Bobby Fischer, playing cattier and vicious to establish the hundred-point lead that carried her to a triumphant
411-319 win. I don’t know who was happier. I don’t like losing, but I loved losing to my daughter. I loved her fighting spirit and her indomitable determination to best me.

Emma graduates from college this May. She will need every ounce of that strength and moxie as she heads into a job market tighter than a tourniquet. She is sure to have her share of near-pointless Old MacDonald interviews and go-fer jobs. Like any mom, I wish for my daughter a life of seven-letter words. All into hot pink triple word spaces.

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14 thoughts on “And Tiles to Go Before I Sleep

  1. Cindy L

    Love this essay AND the photo of you and Emma (she’s gorgeous and smart!)

    I’ve recently pulled out the old Scrabble board. Am not as good as I should be. I labor over finding the right word when I’m writing, so I am not a “quick” Scrabble player…

  2. David Crumm

    Love it!
    Our family loves games and the social jousting has been part of our family gatherings for half a century. Our daughter and son, now, return home sometimes with a separate bag in which they’re eager to swap current game hits—although they’re even competitive at that. Last time, daughter came with games to swap; son “forgot” his games and simply wanted to “borrow” sister’s games. Yeah, right.
    There’s something wonderfully challenging in games as you’ve so wonderfully pointed out, Debra!
    — David

  3. Barbara Grant

    What a treat to read! Boy, am I impressed by your word skills. I am sending your post on to my daughter-in-law in Burlington who writes a column for the Burlington Freep called “Mom to Mom”. She and another mom of young children alternate every two weeks. I know she’ll enjoy reading this.

  4. single40grey

    i enjoyed your post!
    im a scrabble addict and i love the bond it creates with my 13 year old son, as well. i just did post on the lifes lessons Ive learnt from Scrabble! You may enjoy it!

  5. Elissa Schwartz

    It is no surprise to me that Emma exhibits exceptional talent at Scrabble and that her talent grows as time passes. After all, she has learned from the best. As you raise the bar, she follows in your footsteps. I have no doubt that with her education, skills and personality she will be hired for a seven-letter word job and she will create hot pink triple word spaces for herself.

  6. Beth

    Sweet, strong, and beautiful, like you and Emma. Thanks, Debra. And let’s play Scrabulous or Wordscraper (Scrabble imitators) on Facebook sometime! I love Scrabble, too, though I doubt I could compete with either of you!

  7. Annie

    Emma is as beautiful as she is smart-but then-so is her mother! I LOVED this-it made me think of my grandmother and my mother. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  8. martin

    I may have lost the 1980s and 1990s to you, but I am holding my own in the 2000s. From her husband who is so proud of her writing (and it is very challenging to play her).

  9. Mary Q

    Enjoyed reading your column, Debra. Have you played Quiddler – a game similar to Scrabble where players use cards to form words? It’s fun!

  10. Only the Half of It

    I haven’t played Scrabble for YEARS but what I am a HUGE fan of is Lexulous and WordScraper, versions of Scrabble on FaceBook. I LOVE IT!!!! It’s a great way to work on your vocab and just build some mental skills. I do the personal interaction but what I like is I can play when I want over time. Great post. I want a 7-word life too.

  11. Sue Cole

    My daughter Katie and I play scrabble online and it keeps us in touch. No matter how busy we are each day we find time to make a play and write a few words in a message to each other.
    She trounces me quite regularly-usually by at least 100 points .
    We both enjoyed this article and she loved seeing the picture of Emma.
    Katie used to babysit for Emma and for Elliott when we lived across the street
    How ironic that these 2 sets of mothers and daughters are keeping close through scrabble games.
    Keep writing, Debra!!

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