| LifeTakes |

Color My Number  

    Tzvi pushes out his chair. “You’re going to win anyway, Mommy, why should I play?”

Everyone settles around as I plunk the wooden box on the table and pull out the game board. Clink. Clunk. The cream rectangles with numbers one to thirteen in red, yellow, blue,  and black spill out like white chocolate squares. It’s the game where you pick 14 pieces, then take turns setting them on the table in color and sequence.

Rummikub. My late grandmother’s set.

Tzvi pushes out his chair. “You’re going to win anyway, Mommy, why should I play?”

“You never know until you put your full power into it,” I answer.

And the dining room fades. I’m in Bubby’s small room, the lace curtain billowing in the breeze. I’m nine, and Bubby sets up her board. I fumble with my pieces, ogling hers sliding onto the cocoa-brown end table with such ease. I can’t play. It’s always Gitty, my younger sister, who wins in Othello and Uno and Sorry.

Bubby’s chin rides up in that way that says, “You’re playing,” so I drop my blue five on the first available spot.

Yo,” Bubby says in her Hungarian lilt, as if my move is worth a small prize. “Put down more.”

I shrug, and she peeks over my board, points to the red and yellow and blue tens jumbled there. I place the three pieces on the table and Bubby’s eyes go round like the red joker smirking between the numbers.

I shrug again. Big deal. Bubby helped me. Gitty’s still the best player.

The dining room focuses again. “Mommy only has five pieces left,” Tzvi says, a roar in his voice.

“As usual,” my husband adds.

The game heats up, anticipation tingling my fingers as I pick another piece because my two red sixes don’t have a place on the field. My husband’s board starts emptying, but then Tzvi is down to his last piece. A blue seven. We’re on his case, and I point out the joker giggling on the side where it was free for the taking, but no one was looking. We move pieces in and out of their places, until Tzvi raises his hands in defeat, dumps his last piece back on his board.

“Try again,” I say, directing his eyes. “Look at this set of sevens and the red four, five, and six.”

“No, no,” Bubby says, as I slip back to her table, “Itt van, keep looking.” And my 11-year-old self shrugs, drops the piece into Bubby’s cradled hand. I’m a bad player. Yesterday Gitty won at chess, and last week she was the grand winner of Monopoly. And to think I’m the older one.

But Bubby doesn’t play my piece, as I’d hoped.

“Look here.” Her face nods in bursts. “And there.”

I blink. She leans over and waits. So I search the gleaming cream pieces as she follows my movements. My fingers reach out to lift and slide and change.

“Aha,” she says in suspense until I do it. Find my piece a place. Then her brows rise and fold as if I’d won a trophy.

Maybe I had.

Back in the dining room, my husband places a set of 13s on the table, and the race continues. Pieces fly off boards, clanking into each other as they settle in an array of colors. Then my husband does a mixeroo, trying to make a place for his own piece. I follow his movements with eagle vision. “Nice try,” I say, “where will you put that red four?”

He laughs. “I’m relying on you to put Humpty Dumpty together again.”

And I do. I rearrange the playing field to its original form and gently place the lone piece back on my husband’s board.

Tzvi shifts in his seat. “How do you do that every time, Mommy?”

“Great-Bubby trained me.”

I’m 12, toying with the frills of my pink dress. I follow where Bubby is going with the blue six and red eight. When it’s my turn, I try to imitate her, slowly shift pieces around, first here and then there. She sucks in a breath as she watches me, eyes bulging. Finally, I fit that yellow 12 into the puzzle, and her chin quivers.

“Aha!” she says, “nagyon szép.”

Something warms my face. I did it.

Gitty wins at Boggle and Scrabble. But I’m the Rummikub champion.

A whoop from Tzvi. He put down his last piece first and won the first round of Rummikub in his life. He looks smug, his shoulders squared.

A feeling from long ago fuzzes in my chest. “So, Tzvi.” I lean back in my seat. “You can play good!”

He laughs, and I laugh with him.

We sit, savoring the moment. Then Tzvi and I stack the creamy Rummikub pieces back into the wooden box, five columns in two rows. Just as I did after playing with Bubby.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 888)

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