I’m trying to put together a summer men’s mah jongg league. We’ll smoke cigars, drink vodka, tell stupid jokes, and play mah jongg under the stars. First we need to learn the rules and next month I’m going to take lessons. My mom played the game this way:
The Fourth Hand
“One crak.” My mom took a sip of coffee from a cup that was part of her Rosenthal China set, one of the few things my family brought with them from Europe.
“Two bam.” Eva, a dozen years older than my mom and in a floral dress with a lace wrap, took a piece of my mom’s strudel.
So it went during all of my childhood in Milwaukee. Once a month when I’d come home from school, three ladies would always be there calling out their tiles. There was Eva, a German war survivor who was always cheery yet formal. There was Rosie, another boundless optimist just like the other two, but who was American born and petite. She always wore a cardigan sweater, even in the summer. Of course, there was my mom, a Polish war survivor. The game would rotate from house to house once a week.
I still don’t know what craks and bams are. But my wife does. My mother-in-law does. My daughter does. Every Jewish woman I’ve ever known well knows how to play mah jongg, an ancient Chinese tile-based game.
All the tile sets I’ve seen have been made from plastic, but once upon a time they were made from bone. My wife owns a set. My mother-in-law does too. So does my daughter. They don’t play regularly, hardly at all. My mother played the game once a week for thirty years.
How did a Chinese game become an entertainment staple for Jewish women in America in the 20th century? I have no idea. Mah jongg does seem kind of exotic in comparison to card games, and playing cards was a crude thing to do according to my mother. Whenever she said the words “card player,” kurtenshpiler in Yiddish, it was with derision.
Ah, but mah jongg. That was something real ladies did. It showed refinement and class. How this distinction came to be is anyone’s guess. It was just implicit. Card playing was done at night with cigarette smoke in the air. Mah jongg was done in the day with your best china. You dressed like a lady should dress, as if you were going to a charity luncheon. You talked politely with your friends. If you talked about other people, you didn’t gossip, but focused on their successes. These were the unwritten rules of these three ladies.
Playing mah jongg was part of being balbattish. You kept up your home. You made sure that your kids’ clothes were clean and mended. You made sure that your husband was color coordinated when he walked out the door. There was always a meal on the table promptly at 5:00 so you could watch the news at 5:30 as a family. And you played mah jongg. It was all part of a package and all three of these women were effortlessly baltbattish.
Except there was one essential problem for this trio. You play mah jongg with four people. My mother played mah jongg with Eva and Rosie for decades. But the fourth? There was never a suitable fourth for the long haul who shared their sensibility.
At first, my mother’s good friend Honey played with the threesome. But there were compatibility problems. Honey was a top-notch bridge player, a fast talker, crude and down to earth. She hated getting dressed up. Mah jongg or “mahj” as it is known for short ultimately was twee and beneath her. She lasted for several years, not ever fitting in, before she called it quits. She always liked my mom, she said to me once about her revolt from the weekly mah jongg trio. “But those other two.” She shook her head.
A second fourth hand came on board, Sylvia, who was someone my mother barely knew from synagogue. She caught on instantly to the vibe of the other three. She dressed up. She was polite. Unlike the first fourth, she didn’t mind that every week they set some money aside from the bets for a yearly trip to Chicago to have lunch and go to the Phil Donahue Show (and after that TV show went off the air, Oprah). Honey would call Phil Donahue a fag and laugh after she hurled the insult. Sylvia, like the other three, thought Phil Donahue was one of the most attractive men on Earth. “And so intelligent, too,” they all concurred.
My mother became fast friends with Sylvia as a result of mah jongg. They’d shop together and drive down to Chicago to buy clothes. With Sylvia on board, the mah jongg group was as tight as it would ever be. Then one day, my mother walked into her friend’s house and found Sylvia slumped over her kitchen sink, dead of a heart attack at the age of forty-two. That event truly shook my mother. “Her face was all blue!” She said more than once. For two or three years after, my mother was very conscious of her own mortality. The mah jongg group was back to three.
A new fourth hand was found, someone who was a dead ringer for the comedienne Madeline Kahn. Marilyn. She even talked like Kahn, with the same strange theatrical rounding of vowels. She was American born, came from serious money and unlike the other three wasn’t sunny. She dressed up because she always dressed up wherever she went. It was a strange fit, this oh so serious and status conscious woman in the mix with the other three.
At face value, Marilyn shouldn’t have lasted. There was always something a little off about her personality, nervous and diva-like. Then three years into her being the fourth hand, something happened that made her a fixture in the group in an off again/on again kind of way. She went off her rocker. Off to an asylum she went for three months. When she got out, her doctor recommended that she return to normal activities. One of those normal activities was mah jongg. Back she was at the weekly table. The replacement fourth hand was sent off to exile.
Marilyn wasn’t the same woman when she came back. She’d stare off into space and rattle off words that made no sense. She’d shout out in anger over little aspects of the game. My mother and the other two adapted. The joy of playing clearly was gone, but now they shared a valuable community role. They were doing the right thing by helping a sick woman.
Every eighteen months or so Marilyn would go back to the asylum. The temporary fourth hand – another German-born war survivor, Ava – would come back. You’d see the original trio relax and enjoy the game again. But it was understood that this would be a brief holiday. No one ever suggested that Marilyn not come back and join the group. Weekly mah jongg was essential therapy for Marilyn.
For ten years this shuttling of Marilyn into and out of the asylum took place. She died in her fifties of cancer. The temporary fourth came back full time. My mom, Eva and Rosie finally were back to being ladies, not nurses. The only sore point was that Ava would not infrequently mention that she didn’t understand why they had kept Marilyn on all those years, that it hadn’t been fair to her. The other three would say nothing when Ava’s hurt feelings would periodically surface.
Once a year they’d all go to Chicago to see Oprah, although they still remembered Phil Donahue fondly, and have a ladies lunch in the big city. They’d talk about how good a person Oprah was for weeks after. She wasn’t crude like the other TV hosts and hostesses. She was a real lady. It’s probably true that Oprah would have made the ultimate fourth hand at my mother’s mah jongg table.*
About a year before my mom died, Eva passed on. She was about 80 at the time. I saw her a month before she died and watched her play. Thirty years of watching women play mah jongg and I still don’t know the rules. She was sunny as always and alert. That was probably the last time my mother played mah jongg in her own home.
My daughter has my wife’s aunt’s mah jongg set on my father-in-law’s side, I think. My wife has her aunt’s set on her mother’s side. I don’t know who has my mother’s set. Maybe we do. I probably should learn how to play. But I think that there is another unwritten rule out there that of course my mother never told me. Real men don’t play mah jongg.
*Oprah’s mother lived outside of Milwaukee for many years. She was a vivacious woman and my mom met her once or twice at a burger joint they both liked that was near my grandfather’s junkyard. According to my mother, Oprah was in high school with me for a brief time. I remember a very shy, large girl who had a locker down the way from me, was in choir, was harassed now and then by upper class boys, and who disappeared in the middle of the year. Was that her? I have no idea.