The Game My Mother Taught Me

“Mom, I’m bored. What can I do?”

The clock nibbles away at the afternoon. It’s Sunday and I’m a fidgety ten-year-old sitting on our living room couch. We Fundamentalists embrace a strict set of biblical doctrines, and a list of forbidden “worldly” practices—practices especially prohibited on Sundays. I can’t go to the movies or read the newspaper. Can’t ride my bike out of the neighborhood.

“Why don’t you work on your Bible memory verses?”

I decide to give it a try. I find my yellow cardboard Velveeta cheese box and riffle through the dozens of little square cards. I’ve written a verse on one side with its reference on the back. Fundamentalists take the Bible seriously, and this box is my own idea. I’ve memorized perhaps 100 cards, and I’m working on more.

But I soon lose interest. “Mom, what else can I do?”

“Why don’t you read your King Arthur book?”

I find the big hardback, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I love the pathos of the wounded knights that crimson the grassy sward, with a beautiful maiden trying to staunch the flow. I wonder if I would have the courage to do the great deeds they did. Probably not.

“I’ve already read most of it.”

“Well, why don’t you play in the orange grove?”

We kids would spend hours running between the orange trees; building living spaces underneath the thick branches; creating lakes, islands, dams, and rushing rivers with the irrigation water. Orange fights were the most fun. We had one rule—don’t use hard oranges, only rotten ones lying on the ground. Mother discouraged orange fights, but we waged many illicit wars.

“It’s too hot. Besides, there’s no one to play with.” On Sundays, my parents discouraged me from playing with my neighbor, Jerry. My sister Virginia was visiting a friend. Mary was playing with her dolls.

Mother lays her dishtowel down. “Why don’t we play Authors in the breakfast nook?”

I tell her, “I’ll get the cards!” I love this game. They’re still in the original box that has a colored picture of Mark Twain on it.

We shoehorn ourselves into the tiny breakfast nook that protrudes from the front of our kitchen. With a bench on each side of an oilcloth-covered table, our whole family squeezes in here to eat all of our meals. The pale green board-and-batten walls are punctuated with two screened windows that open onto the small front lawn. I look out and see sparrows rising in random gusts above the bird feeder.

I dump the cards out, shuffle them, deal four each to Mother and me, and put the rest in the draw pile. A Massachusetts clergyman’s daughter, Anne Abbott, created the Authors game at the beginning of the Civil War. Each card has a color picture of a famous author, such as Louisa May Alcott, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I look at my cards. One has Mark Twain’s picture and the title The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. At the bottom appear three additional titles by the same author: Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and The Pauper, and The Mysterious Stranger. Each title evokes a world. Who was Tom Sawyer? Why did the prince hang out with a poor boy? Who could the stranger be? I long to share these adventures.

I need to collect all four Mark Twain cards. “Mom, do you have Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain?” (Mother always insists we name the author when we ask for the card.)

Mother says, “No, but do you have Crossing the Bar by Alfred Lord Tennyson?”

I reluctantly hand over the card. She hands me a plate of sugar cookies. I help myself to a couple and wash them down with lemonade squeezed from real lemons. Then she asks, “Do you have Idylls of the King by him?”

“No. Do you have The Tempest by William Shakespeare?”

“No. Do you have Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens?”


When all the cards are played, we each count the complete four-card sets we’ve collected. She has five sets. I win with eight.

When I was ten, I’d never read any of these Authors books, but the mere titles conjured up vast worlds to explore. When I later encountered these books in high school and college, they seemed like familiar friends.

I never dreamed that playing cards with Mother would give me such a rich gift. Simple game, but Mother used it to suck me into her love of literature—a love I’ve cherished all my life.

2 thoughts on “The Game My Mother Taught Me

  1. Jim, there are some interesting parallels between your life and mine. I think we’d have an interesting conversation about this some time. Nils Friberg


  2. Jim, a wonderful article. I forwarded it to Matt and suggested he consider something like the ‘game’ for his boys. I am sending the article to Nils. Jim, thank you.



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