In my memory, it’s a Saturday, but it probably was a Wednesday or Thursday.
Grandma would have cleaned the house earlier week, working alongside the hired house cleaner, Maria, to wash the floors, dust, vacuum, and clean every crevice of the kitchen and bathroom. Maria, who always wears a flower-print, sleeveless cotton dress that exposes the length of her brown, muscular arms. Maria, with her strange, gruff voice, her foreign-tinted accent, her kind smile when she directed it at us.
The real preparation begin in the afternoon.
My sister and I are told to clear away the toys (cars, marbles, plastic animals, the old metal View Master) we’d spread on the living room broadloom that morning while watching cartoons and Mr. Dressup on the big console television.
When the floor is clean, grandma pulls the card table out of the closet and we help set it up, swinging each folded leg out until it clicks into place. Then we dress the table with its plastic-coated, quilted cover, securing each corner to its corresponding table leg with little metal snaps.
Next, we drag four chairs from the dining room to their places at the table, and then carry Grandma’s mah jong set in from her bedroom closet. The case looks like a small brief case that you open by pressing its the two locks on its front edge with your thumbs. I usually need to combine the muscle power of two thumbs on a single lock at a time.
We lift the lid and remove the five colored plastic trays that will hold the mahjong tiles, then position four of the trays as if we’re setting the table, centering each as exactly as we can in front of each chair, making sure there is an even number of colored betting chips in each of the little metal chip holders attached to each tray. We set aside the fifth tray aside for the fifth player.
Finally, we dump out the smooth tiles into a pile in the center of the table. They fall with a muted thud on the quilted cover. We turn then face down and “mix” them with our hands. When we were satisfied that we’ve stirred enough randomness into the tiles, we build short walls of tiles along the back of each tray, two tiles wide, two tiles deep, until three of the trays are protected by a full wall, and one has only a partial wall.
Late in the afternoon, Grandma assembles snacks for the evening. There is always an array of the “slimming” variety: scoops of tuna salad and cottage cheese, a pile of sliced vegetables and fruit, and a packet of melba toast, splayed out like a hand of cards. And then a dish or two of mandelbrot, or arrowroot biscuits, or moon cookies. And on the low table by the chesterfield, a bowl of fruit-flavored hard candies that have sweet, soft fruity centers: strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, lemon.
Then… we wait.
Grandpa has left the house for the evening, to where I’m not sure, but I assume he’s gone bowling or to some similar male past time with his friends. This is a women-only evening. I don’t know what Grandma would have done if we’d been grandsons and not granddaughters. Maybe we would have still been honorary “mahj”ladies?
Grandma has changed into a nicer outfit. Nothing too fancy, but out of the cleaning clothes she’d been wearing all day.
The summer sun begins its dip toward the horizon. My sister and I watch the front driveway through the long, pleated drapes in the living room until the first car arrives. Then there’s all the excitement as the first of grandma’s friends bursts through the front door, ringing the little bells as the door swings open, then shuts, takes off her jacket to hang in the front closet, checks her hair in the hall mirror, strides into the kitchen or living room, kisses my grandmother, stops to appraise us two girls quickly, then exclaims:
Kayn aynhoreh! Look how how much you’ve grown! Shaine maidela. Such beautiful girls!
This repeats three more times.
These friends and my grandmother, there were typical housewives by day, meeting up at the sawdust-floored butcher shops, the bakeries, the banks, or under the enormous hair dryers at the hairdresser’s. But tonight, they are exotic and full of mystery, keepers of womanly secrets.
Unlike our mother, they wear jewelry and makeup and perfume, and have their hair done every week. They wear clothes in bold and artificial-seeming colors, dressed in pinks and purples and blues that looked like dyed carnations. They have dressmakers. They know everyone’s families. They know everyone’s secrets. They speak quickly, with loud voices, in many exclamations, switching in mid sentence from English to Yiddish and back to English again in a seamless stream of gossip and jokes. They speak in hushed voices, mostly in Yiddish, with sympathy and about illness, divorce, and disaster. My sister and I try to track these more serious plots by following the few Yiddish words we’ve learned and the names the women mention.
I adore these glamorous housewives and see these evenings as mini initiations into the world of mature women. They talk differently when the men aren’t about. They’re loud, forward, and, I suspect, a bit naughty (though their naughtiness mostly goes over my head). A tiny fly on the wall, I bask in their friendship and laughter.
When everyone is settled in with a drink in hand, four ladies seat themselves at the table, while the fifth player sits nearby. The ladies playing the game are absorbed, serious, and nearly silent. There’s no idle chit chat or jokes. Just the calling out at each turn of the discarded tile, and then the muffled thump as the tile was placed in the center of the table, face up. “Eight bam”, “Three crack”, “East”, “Flower”, “Soap”, “One dot”. Around the table the play goes, tile by tile, call by call, thump by thump.
But the fifth player? Oh, she is ours, all ours.
We gain her complete, focused attention. We sit on the arm of the chesterfield as close as we can get to her with out sitting on her lap, and answer her questions in whispered voices so as not to disturb the players, “What grades are we in” Do we get good marks in school? Who are our friends?” We don’t care that the questions were repeated all night long; we’re just thrilled for the beam of attention that falls onto our rapt faces.
The quiet breaks when a player wins a hand. Suddenly, there’s action. Everyone else reveals her own tiles, then dumps the tiles into the center of the table. The talk and laughter starts. Eight practiced hands flip the tiles over quickly, then mix them in a circular swirl, each woman pressing her hands on the group of tiles in front of her, then swishing them to her left, and up, as if passing them to her friend, who, in turn, keeps the swirling and the stirring going.
The living room lights up with their voices. The player sitting out turns her attention from us to her friends. Bathroom breaks, phone calls, snacks.
Before we’re ready it’s bed time. The ladies will keep playing, but we are sent to our room down the hall for the night. Reluctantly, we change into nightgowns, brush our teeth, make another round of the ladies for goodnight kisses, then down the hall, into the room, and slide under the covers.
The bedroom door is open. The women settle down to play again.
We listen sleepily as the game begins again, as the women call out their discarded tiles. We listen to the rhythmic thunk of tile against table, the periodic bursts of conversation and laughter, the gorgeous clacking sounds of the tiles as they’re mixed, stirring in and out of our dreams.
Never once did I hear the end of the game, the packing and clearing up, or the jangle of the door’s bells as the ladies left.
We wake in the morning, the card table banished back to the closet, the mahj set put neatly away, and the two locks clicked shut. Later, my sister and I might take the mahj set out to play with its smooth tiles. We play that they’re people on trains. We make the thumping sounds, the clacking sounds. We know motions and hints of last night’s magic, and yearn to know more.