Mah jongg is my escape. I love how it takes my mind off the world around me. Similar to assembling a puzzle, the game requires you to maneuver your tiles in an attempt to effectively mirror the card. The concentration reminds me of practicing yoga — the focus, the strategy, and the speed — although some games are slower than others.
I think mah jongg was my mom’s escape, too. Since my father passed away in August, after a quick and devastating bout with pancreatic cancer, I found it to be something we could do together that actually made her smile, which wasn’t that easy. My parents, high school sweethearts in the 1960s, had just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and suddenly my father was gone.
Maybe it was the combination of the intense focus on the game and the joy of being together that brought my mother happiness. But, I guess that’s what mah jongg is all about.
As a child, I remember my mom playing mahj — as she always referred to it — in the evenings with her friends. I would sneak halfway downstairs in my nightgown, sit on the landing, and look through the slats in the banister and listen to the ladies playing with the tiles, laughing, and, of course, gossiping. I also remember my mom yelling up to my dad to put me to bed.
This is pretty ironic because, up until coronavirus, I did the same thing to my husband when my friends came to our house to play the game. (Setting up a weekly game is something my mom urged me to do, and I’m so glad she did.) Despite the late hour, my kiddos keep appearing at my side wanting to “help.”
Over the past few years, my mom made certain everyone in my circle knew how to play mahj. She taught my 10-year-old son when he was about 6, and has since taught my daughter, who is now 6. You should have seen the nachas in her eyes when my son declared “mah jongg” and proudly displayed his tiles for all to see.
After my dad passed, my mom spent most of her time schlepping to South Florida from her home in Daytona Beach to be with my family. “D” as they lovingly called her, short for Diane, just couldn’t get enough of my son, Madden, and daughter, Randi.
When she visited, we played a lot of mah jongg. We played with my friends, we played with my kids. I even convinced her to attend a mah jongg night at a local coffee shop with the same friends she originally taught to play.
But then, on February 21, my mother died suddenly during a heart procedure, and my world came crashing down. Within the span of six months, both of my parents were gone and I was orphaned at 40. The rush of déjà vu flooded my older brother and me, from that first phone call to the rabbi, to planning the shiva, writing the obituary, and so on.
Like so many of my Jewish brethren, however, I find humor to be a powerful weapon in the face of disaster and grief. I made light of our tragedy whenever possible, just to keep myself afloat. I also can’t resist a good deal — I even asked for a frequent buyers’ discount on the casket. (And it worked. $400 back in my pocket, thank you very much.)
The funeral, the shiva, the walking around the block signifying the end of the shiva — mourning my mom has been a giant blur. It was all too soon and too familiar.
Fortunately, along with other close friends, my mah jongg girls were there for me, as they always are; first when I lost my dad, and now my mom. These are the friends I can count on, no matter what.
The past month has definitely been a strange time to be in mourning. Due to the pandemic, I can’t go to synagogue, and I’m doing my best to recite virtual kaddish whenever I remember it’s Friday. I have found staying busy to be the best thing for me, which brings us back to mah jongg — or the lack thereof.
Suddenly, on top of all of these other unprecedented changes — the closing of schools and non-essential businesses, and so on — my coping mechanism was taken away from me. No more mah jongg night, no schmoozing with my friends. My distraction from this horrific year simply whisked away.
At first I pleaded with my foursome, asking, “Can we play outside? Can’t we just wear gloves?” My questions were met with eye rolls and hard no’s from my hypochondriac friends. Although I quickly learned they would be right.
With some time on my hands, combined with an intense desire to keep busy so as not to think about the loss of my parents, I had an idea. Something I could have some control over. I opened my laptop and searched online for a product to clean and disinfect my mah jongg set.
Just as I suspected, I found nothing. Not on Amazon, not online anywhere. Of course, you could grab any old schmatte or Clorox wipe (should you be lucky enough to currently possess them) to polish your racks, but with all this talk of germs related to COVID-19, I knew this idea had some value.
You see, when my friends and I play, we nosh and touch our tiles — not a good combo these days. I thought to myself, “What if I came up with something cute and even entertaining, especially because of what’s going on in the world, to use to clean your set?” I wanted something portable, like for the coffee shop or to take to a friend’s house once we resume these activities.
I began to brainstorm, and in a matter of minutes, I had it: Some “SOAP” to wipe your “CRACK.” Those familiar with the lingo will quickly realize that “soap” and “crack” are both names of mah jongg tiles. Adorable, right?
I certainly thought antibacterial wipes to clean your set were a novel idea, but was this the time to start a business? I can barely keep my shit together right now, the economy is in the toilet, and now that I’m a homeschool teacher, I barely have a moment to myself.
But then I had an a-ha moment. I realized that for me to find the motivation to launch this business, it needed meaning. I decided to pay homage to my parents. My mom was quite the mah jongg maven, so the connection to her was a given, but I needed a component for my dad.
My father’s decline was so fast. There wasn’t time for trials or traveling around to test out treatment plans. One of my biggest hopes for the future is that there will be more treatment options for pancreatic cancer, and someday even a cure for this devastating disease. So I decided that a portion of the proceeds from each purchase of my wipes will be donated to pancreatic cancer research in honor of my dad. I found my mission, so to speak, something positive to focus on during this strange time in everyone’s lives.
On April 1, we launched MahJonggWipes.com. Players can now protect their sets and themselves by keeping their tiles clean and germ free. The mini canisters of antibacterial wipes are adorable and people “crack” up when they read the label.
These days, my friends and I are playing again, but the setting is different, as we’re now playing online. You can’t hear the sounds of the tiles and most of us are in our pajamas, but with a Zoom call alongside our game, there’s thankfully still gossip, laughter, and maybe a glass of wine.
I often think about how my mom would be handling this pandemic. I know her anxiety would be through the roof. But would she adapt to playing online mahj? (Just thinking of the tech support I’d be providing gives me a headache.) Or would she simply stick to playing with my kids in real life? I don’t know. But I do know that, even though she’s not here with us anymore, I think of her all of the time, especially when I play mah jongg.
I often think back to something I said at my mom’s funeral: “I know she will always be right there with me, telling me which hand to play and whispering in my ear never to pass a flower.”
Now, I can whisper back to her that my crack will always be clean.
Image courtesy of Jill Fox