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Guestwords: Smarts Against Dumbs

Wed, 04/20/2022 - 12:32

If you have the good fortune to have access to The New York Times on Sunday, then you may already be familiar with a feature called “Sunday Routine.” New Yorkers of all stripes, including Jim Grant (better known as the author Lee Child), are asked about their, well, Sunday routines. Heady stuff.

Most of the New Yorkers profiled there, interestingly enough, do much the same as you and me and everyone else on a Sunday: read the paper and drink coffee. (“Lee Child” drinks even more coffee on Sunday than I do, and that’s saying something.)

One Sunday I was giving the weekly piece (about some landscape designer or whatever) a perfunctory skim when I noticed her saying that her son wakes her every Sunday with a demand to play Sorry! I felt an immediate connection with Whatshername, even though she’s decades younger and lives in a row house in Queens. And it was all about that demand to play a game.

When I was a kid, playing games was a big deal. I swear on a stack of Scrabble dictionaries that we did in fact play hours and hours of Sorry! Also Clue (Mrs. Peacock in the library with a candlestick, anyone?) and Monopoly. (I liked to be the iron, for some strange reason.) Board games were big. Very big. And, of course, there was Scrabble. But before I get into Scrabble, let’s talk about cards.

Even before we kids were old enough to play, we would watch the adults play cards. Trust me, I picked up a lot of juicy stuff watching my Henry grandparents and uncles and aunts sit around a big kitchen table playing variants of poker, like the kind where you hold a card up to your forehead so everyone but you can see it (“Indian poker,” this was called in those unreconstructed days). Even after we youngsters were banished upstairs to bed, we would gather around the heat register — basically, a grille set into a cutout in the floor to allow heat from downstairs to get to the unheated upstairs — to listen in. (Very little heat went up those registers, but adult conversations drifted up there just fine.)

The Peterson side of my family was also very into cards. Games like 500 and euchre were played. By teams called the Smarts and the Dumbs. I asked my mom to help me out here, my memory being a bit hazy, and she said, “Oh yes. The Smarts were the team your Uncle Ronald was on. And the Dumbs were his opposition, of course.”

But the game I remember most from those Peterson family gatherings was Scrabble.

My Peterson Gramma always won at Scrabble. She was so good at it that it’s a wonder she could find anyone to play with. Maybe it was the treats we ate while we played. She made the best thumbprint cookies on the planet, with jam in the “thumbprint.” She would enjoy hers with something she called “silver tea,” which was a mug of plain hot water.

Incidentally, my aforementioned Uncle Ron was not a Scrabbler. Like my Grampa Peterson, he claimed he “couldn’t stand the excitement.”

Anyway. I remember one night in particular. We had just about decimated some fruitcake we found that was left over from Christmas (yes, there are people who actually like fruitcake; most of them are named Peterson), and it was getting really late. Gramma had just trounced us for the umpteenth time when Aunt Shirley glanced at the clock, noticed that it was somewhere on the wrong side of 3 in the morning, and suggested we call it a night. At this, Gramma looked around the table and said, “We could play another game.”

Speaking of Scrabble (and I bet you never thought someone could speak of Scrabble so much), my dad was really good at it too. But that’s because he cheated. He was one of the best game cheaters I ever knew. We kept the Scrabble letters in an old Folgers coffee can, and he would reach in and feel the fronts of the tiles and pick out only the Js and the Zs and Qs (and the Us to go with the Qs).

I could go on and on about games. But I’ll stop now. And leave you with this thought. Now that we’re spending so much more time together, think about dusting off that deck of cards or those board games. Trust me, you’ll have way more interactive family fun than you would with a barrel of touchscreens. You won’t be sorry. Unless, of course, you’re playing Sorry!

Alice Henry Whitmore was an advertising copywriter in New York City for many years. She lives in Amagansett and writes a weekly humor blog at


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