Bubbe

I Learned All I Need to Know from Playing Cards with My Grandma

Deck of playing card spread out on a wooden table in a close up overhead view in random order with the ace of diamond uppermost

Some of my favorite life memories are with my Grandma Dede, who passed away just over a month ago. I particularly remember playing cards with her, including many games of Russian Bank.

For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of playing Russian Bank with Delia, here’s how it goes: it’s a two person solitaire-style card game, played with two decks. The goal is to get rid of all of your cards before your opponent does, and you do this by building up the center game board, solitaire style—and by dumping your cards on your opponent’s pile whenever you can. As the playing board gets built up, each move can require multiple steps, and if you see your opponent missing steps or breaking the rules of play, you can call “stop!” and take over their turn.

One game of Russian Bank could take 20 to 30 minutes to finish, and required deep focus and concentration to win.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time—I thought I was just having fun and getting some highly coveted Grandma attention—I was learning important life lessons from my time with her. Here are just a few of them:

1. Learn to pay attention: In this age of constant distractions, the ability to stay present and focused is becoming a lost art. Yet as Grandma knew, and taught me in so many different ways, whether you’re solving an advanced algebra problem or frying an egg (or just trying to whup your granddaughter in a game of cards!) paying attention is key.

2. Slow down: I was an impatient child, and I remember getting so annoyed at how slowly Grandma would go when it was her turn. She’d scan her pointer finger up one side of the board and down the other as she looked for cards to dump on my pile or other possible moves, and I just wanted to her to go, already. But the truth is, she made fewer mistakes than I did, and she won more often than I did, in no small part because she took her time.

3. If you want to get better at something, you need to practice. I was an impatient child in more ways than one, and I had little tolerance for endeavors I wasn’t immediately successful at. I’d get frustrated when I made a lot of mistakes or didn’t win, but Grandma always reminded me that I just needed to keep playing and practicing, and I’d get better. And eventually I did.

4. Losing is part of the deal. Grandma didn’t pull any punches in those games; she called “stop!” on me whenever she could, and she won whenever she could (which was most of the time). Every time she did that, she was letting me know that she expected me to show up with nothing less than my best, and that she knew I could tolerate losing. And (with time) I could.

5. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Don’t get me wrong, Grandma took our games very seriously, but she also smiled whenever I was able to call “stop!” on her. She was clearly enjoying herself, even as she was carefully monitoring the board and my every move, and I think she had the most fun when I was finally able to beat her.

6. Having fun with the people you love makes life better. This is, perhaps, the most valuable lesson I learned from all of my card games and lake swims and walks through the woods (watch out for the roots, don’t trip on the roots) and guideboat rides and lukewarm paella dinners and Christmas capers with grandma.

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the business, and busy-ness, of life that I can lose sight of how important it is to just sit down and really savor the person in front of me, and the game of cards between us.

Showing up for, and truly enjoying the people I love is, perhaps, Delia’s greatest legacy to me, and I am grateful for it, as I am so grateful to have had her as my grandmother.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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