Growing up, my Aunt Jean and Papa Ed had a lake house where our family would spend time during the summers. That lake house had a way of forcing us all together for summers of hot dogs and cannonballs, and though I was very young, my memories there are the only times I recall my family feeling cohesive. I guess it’s true what they say: “You never know how many friends you have until you have a lake house.”
When I think back on memories of myself during those summers, they tell of a personality that still felt wildly unfettered by the sharp edges of the world. One summer evening, I took the liberty of lining up all of the porch chairs on the deck to form a theater for my one-night-only, one-woman show. I had brought a recital costume with me, and trotted about in a blue-and-white-striped sequin leotard and tiny tap shoes, ushering (shoving) each of my relatives to their seats so they could behold the wonder of my prodigious talents. One of my favorite things about children is that they are rarely bashful about showing off. It’s just their natural assumption that everyone will be thrilled to see all that they are accomplishing so far in their young, budding lives. It becomes less adorable, sure, as we get older, but I think the motivation behind it is what changes the response. When we show off as adults, what we’re usually saying is, “Hey! Look at me! I am doing something IMPRESSIVE!” When we show off as kids, all we’re thinking is, “Hey! Look at me! I’m doing something I LOVE!” And let’s face it, joy is an immeasurably more enjoyable thing to applaud than ego.
My cousin, Sara, remembers me always wanting to play shop clerk with this toy cash register they kept at the lake house. I’d go through the house collecting groceries and household items, and insist that everyone stand in line and check out before going about their day. Sara is several years older than me, and it inevitably cracks her up when she recalls how I would correct her cash dispensing methods and send her back through training because she wasn’t doing it right, and apparently she let me. This is usually the part in the story when she tells me I’m lucky I was cute, and I tell her she’s lucky to have had such an efficient supervisor, because where would she be today without my no-nonsense work ethic and sky-high expectations?
My favorite thing about going to the lake house was that I got to see Moochie. Moochie was my nap/dance/gambling partner, and even though he was Papa Ed’s dog, he was my best friend. We were the exact same size, which meant we could trade off as big and little spoons. I could fall asleep on his belly, to the rise and fall of his fur in my face with each deep doggy breath, and it didn’t bother him one bit. Moochie would pretend to be my attentive student while I played teacher and taught him his ABC’s and arithmetic. He would don my tap costume while I pretended to be the Ginger Rogers to his ever-so-dashing Gene Kelly. Moochie would even sit perfectly still and hold playing cards with his paws (I’m being totally serious), so I could hone my Rummy skills for my cutthroat competitions with Papa Ed. God, I loved that dog.
Inevitably, at the end of a long, sun-drenched day at the lake, everyone would settle in to drink beer on the back porch, play card games at the kitchen table, or watch 80’s sitcoms on TV. My family would laze about basking in the easy happiness that only comes after a fun-filled day on the water, pressing their fingertips onto their arms to see if their tans were really sunburns in disguise. Half a dozen swimsuits would be flung over the shower rod, someone would be snoring on the couch, my Aunt and Grandmother would be pouring themselves Jim Beams with Coke, and Papa Ed and I would settle in to play Rummy.
In retrospect, seven was probably a little ambitious of an age to start playing Rummy for money, given that I’d just recently graduated from Go Fish, and given that I didn’t actually have any money. But ever the sport, Papa Ed would give me time to scour the couch cushions and everyone’s Levi’s pockets so I had enough coin to pony up my ante, and off we’d go, Papa Ed in his recliner, me kneeling at the footrest, and Moochie laying at my feet.
Papa Ed was a sneaky holder. He didn’t care that I was seven. He’d wait until he started to see those little flecks of excitement in my eyes at whatever long awaited card I’d just drawn, lay everything down and discard on his next turn, putting me massively in the hole and trying in vain to contain my indignation and despair. It was almost like he enjoyed dashing my dreams, but I knew him well enough to know better. Even though I hated losing, and even though, at the end of every game, Papa Ed would swipe the last of my loot off of the footrest and into one long, white sock where he kept all his winnings, shake it tauntingly up and down so I could hear the coins jingle, smirk and say, “Lost enough money yet?”… I never stopped wanting to play Rummy with Papa Ed. He’d always joke about all of the things he was going to buy with my winnings, and I, with a fire in my belly, would demand one more game.
It was a glorious day the first time I beat him. I remember feeling the tension in my fingers as I gripped my cards, and my unbearable eagerness for him to finish his hand. I tried my best to hold back my eye sparkles, hoarded my last set, and discarded with the triumph of a gladiator who’d just earned her freedom. I remember sitting up tall, proverbial fireworks spouting off in my chest, swiping the loot off the footrest, and saying, “Lost enough money yet?” He just smiled and shuffled.
A lot of things changed over the next few years. Moochie went to doggy heaven. My Mom remarried. My Grandmother moved farther away to live with some guy who had a tractor and a weeping willow on a farm where she taught me how to snap green beans. Aunt Jean and Papa Ed sold the lake house. Family summers ended. I saw Papa Ed less frequently, but he and my Aunt did stay in my hometown, so we would still visit. Even though he had a new house, and had gotten a new dog (who was no Moochie), one thing always stayed the same. Papa Ed and I always played Rummy when I came to visit, and he always took my money when I lost.
I remember one particular game we played when I was in high school. I was at an age where I still loved my Aunt and Uncle, but was eager to get out and hang with my friends. I was doing my due diligence as a dutiful niece, and thought I’d muscle through it by playing cards. Papa Ed and I were sitting at the dining table—on those uncomfortable rail-back chairs with floral cushions tied to the seats—and my Mom and Aunt were sitting on the back patio where my Aunt could smoke and yell at the dog to stop barking at the neighbor’s dog through the fence. I’d gotten shrewder at Rummy with age, and was losing fewer games. I’d even taken a page out of Papa Ed’s book and learned how to become a sneaky holder.
There was one hand during that game that I absolutely dominated. All cards out with a set of Aces, and a discard in fewer than four turns. Oh, it was beautiful. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so victorious. He raised his eyebrows, and just kind of nodded, surprisingly and approvingly. And suddenly, a question occurred to me that I’d never before thought to ask.
“Papa Ed?” I asked, after a few deft riffle shuffles.
“Have you ever let me win?”
Honestly, I think I’d assumed yes. Our open-ended tournament was now over a decade long, and everyone knows you let little kids win sometimes. The thing was, though, that I didn’t really remember winning very much growing up; at least not until I was older, and not very often then.
“No.” (Picks up cards, taps them on the table, and fans them out.)
“Are you sure? Not once?”
“Nope.” (Moves two cards to the front of the pile, and one card two spots from the back.)
“Even when I was really little?”
“Mm-mmnh.” (Draws a card.)
“Yep.” (Finds a place for the new card, moves another.)
Papa Ed looked up from whatever onslaught he was planning, took a swig of Beam, and said, “Because if I’d ever let you win, it wouldn’t have meant anything to you when you won on your own.”
In the span of over ten years that we played Rummy, I probably won fewer than one in ten games. And the thing is, I’m not really any less of a sore loser today than I was 30 years ago (don’t let me lure you into playing Battleship unless you want an aircraft carrier thrown at your face). But when I think back to those hundreds of games of Rummy with Papa Ed, I don’t remember how it felt when I lost. I always just felt ready to start the next game, where a win was still possible. I do, however, remember what it felt like when I won. It made me over-the-moon happy whenever I bested him, and he was right: if he’d ever let me win, not only would those wins not have meant a thing, but the game would no longer have been any fun. Papa Ed had taught me that the joy of victory can only be sweet when you have experienced the disappointment of defeat… It was a lesson he’d etched into me long before tritely motivational Instagram accounts (my generation’s version of cross-stitched pillow inspirations) became every Influencer and Content Specialist’s bread and butter.
That revelatory game of Rummy with Papa Ed was the memory playing in my mind as I stood next to him in the hospital bed they’d bought for the house, just a couple of years later. He’d been fighting terminal lung cancer and expected him to concede any day. Aunt Jean had called to tell us we needed to come say goodbye. I wasn’t as practiced at goodbyes then as I am now. He was the first significant family member I lost that I actually felt close to. I don’t think I knew what to say—I was 17, who could blame me?—and I don’t remember what I finally settled on. I’m sure I told him I loved him. I’m sure I hugged him goodbye. The writer in me wants to fill in the blank and make something up for the sake of the story, but all I really recall is standing there, with my hand on his shoulder, and feeling, so keenly, how much I was going to miss the sight of Papa Ed holding seven cards in one hand and a bourbon in the other.
A few days after the funeral, Aunt Jean asked me to come by the house. She said there was something Papa Ed had wanted me to have. She took me into the room where I’d seen him for the last time. I looked at the bed, with its laundered linens all made back up, and knew that he was gone. Funerals have never offered me much in the way of closure, but somehow, the sight of unrumpled bed sheets, crisply folded, tell me someone’s never coming back. She went to the top left drawer of his dresser—his sock drawer—and pulled out one long, beige sock, with a knot tied in it.
“He’s kept this since your very first game,” she said. “He asked me to make sure you got your money back once he was gone.” When I got home, I untied that sock and dumped out the pot, tears streaming down my face. It amounted to $3.10, two fake coins, and one pressed penny from Luray Caverns. It wasn’t much, but it taught me something that day that I’ve never since forgotten: there are more important currencies than currency. As I sat there on my bed, wrestling with what death had taken and what his life had left behind, I suddenly started to laugh.
This was his final sneaky hold.
He had plotted one last move, slipped in one last hand, made one final discard… and flat out refused to concede the tournament until after he was dead.