I am not a game player. When I was young I learned to play bridge, and at one time I learned to play chess, but I have since forgotten most of both games. Coincidence introduced me to the mysteries of the game of Mah Jongg.
Every couple of years I visit my favorite cousin in New Zealand, and she cajoles me into watching her play this game with a group of elderly ladies at one of their houses. Since I don’t know how to play, I study the decor, speculate about the lives of the other ladies and look out the windows.
The last time I watched the game in New Zealand was 2 years ago. My cousin, Jocelyn, took me to the house of a couple, both over 80, who live in a beautiful spot deceptively close to a limited access main road. The house had an odd approach because a small shopping center was built between the road and the house. A dirt driveway off one side of the shopping center lead to an elegant, rambling house set on about five acres of beautifully kept gardens.
Two special-built Mah Jongg tables were set up in the large stylishly furnished living room. Everything was expensive and comfortable. There were many antiques, lots of original art, and objects collected from world travels. The hostess, herself a mellowed antique, had a beautiful face, chiseled bone structure, carefully but discretely made up, and thick, casually (but carefully) coiffed white hair. No expense had been spared to mitigate ageing. Her figure was fine, but her arms and exposed skin contrasted oddly with the smooth beauty of her face. The skin on her arms was leathery and wrinkled, weathered by many years in the garden sun. Her hands were knarled and arthritic.
Jocelyn was by far the best player, and I watched her handily win the game. Later, in a large dining room, we had tea, served in delicate, fine china cups, with tiny yummy savory pastries and individual tea cakes. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the sun sparkled on the blue and yellow white and pink flowers, ornamental grasses, shrubs, tree ferns, and manicured lawns that extended as far a I could see through the huge picture windows. The husband lurked in the background with a wheelbarrow.
My next Mah Jongg experience was last summer, here in interior Alaska with Jerry. We had no TV (not that I ever watch it anyhow), little in the way of social life, no internet, and I was beginning to develop a touch of cabin fever. My friend Bea found me in a funk, and said, come to Mah Jongg and I agreed; just to watch.
That week it was at the house of Carol and Bunny (a man) who live just down the Tofty Road from my house. The house is a tiny log cabin — perhaps 400 sq ft in all, with no indoor plumbing. It is decorated in Alaska country style; the floor polished, the chinking between the logs bright white. There are some colorful braided rugs, lots of duck decoys, some antlers and other bits of dead animals, and some prints and drawings of Alaska scenes. A huge TV is central. There was a fine spread of edibles, a lemon cake, and ingredients for putting together Mexican snacks — flour tortillas, salsa, sour cream, cheese and beans.
At 7 in the evening the ladies gathered. The hostess, Carol drives the Emergency Services Truck and has a lot of paramedic training. She is an intelligent plump lady in her 60’s. She and Bunny (that is his legal name, on his birth certificate) came here years ago from Delaware. He does handy man jobs here and they keep chickens, African geese and three Jack Russell terriers.
Another player, Jeanie, is about the same age, and she and her husband came here to practice subsistence living. Manley is too civilized for them, so they have another place at a lake accessible only by plane to which they will soon move (it seems that survivalists need airplanes).
Jeannie is an evangelical, and she brought the traveling preacher’s wife with her to observe the game. This lady, Lynn, was enormously fat and had a well maintained southern accent. She declared that her aunt Maybelle would approve the lemon cake, and she ate nonstop throughout the evening. She also declared that she had a terrible case of shingles. Carol examined the problem (in private) and said it was not shingles, but heat rash, under her boobs. Lynn spoke often of her preacher husband, Earl, who was going to perform special baptisms of a baby and a woman in the hot springs the next day. I was invited to attend.
Another player, Damaris, is a retired school teacher who taught at the Manley school for some years. Damaris is around 60, slim, pretty in a prim sort of way, with a quiet, pleasant manner. She played well. She and her husband own a hunting lodge, accessible by plane only, and they entertain and guide very rich people in the bush. She once told me about the wonder of hearing the rumble of the hoofs of herds of migrating caribou, and then seeing masses of them appear, pass by, and vanish in the distance while the sounds of their hoof beats linger.
Dana is in her 40’s and brought 2 of her children. One, called Bekah, is 10 and is a keen Mah Jongg player. She played boldly with the adults. The other child, a younger boy, was parked in front of the TV and watched cartoons throughout. Dana, plump, with a thick blond pony tail, also an evangical, radiates good humor, but sharply enforces the rules of the game which she knows to the letter.
Play had proceeded for a while when a young woman, Nicole, arrived with her mother and 2 month old baby boy. Nicole sometimes plays, but the baby can be a problem so she watched with me. The small cabin became quite crowded.
The preacher’s wife swiveled her huge body over to the peaceful baby and gathered it from Nicole. The baby immediately began to scream. Nicole calmly ignored it. The squirrely chatter of TV cartoons mingled with conversation at the Mah Jongg table, which was punctuated by the cries like pung! or 3 bam! or 5 crack! or white dragon! or east wind! In the game an announcement is made with every play, which is supposed to proceed quickly. There was a lot of noise.
I realized that it was after 10 at night, although it was broad daylight outside; this was Alaska, the land of the midnight sun. I walked, pursued by mosquitoes, the short distance home where it was very quiet.
When the game was at Bea’s house the following week I began to learn to play. Mah Jongg is an interesting game. It has some mystical aspects (you must close the wall of tiles or the spirits will escape) and a lot of ritual. The game itself involves a degree of luck, but it is complex enough to require concentration, memory, and strategic thinking. You play not just to win, but also to defeat the other players, since winning and scoring are separated. I had borrowed a couple of books from Bea to get the basics.
The next week the game was at Jeanie’s cabin, but she wasn’t there. Dana’s mother was staying there, and she and Dana were the official hostesses. Jeanie’s cabin was, like Carol’s, gleaming polished logs and polished plywood floors, furnished Alaska style with duck hunting pictures, rustic furniture and stuffed moose heads, some real, some toy. It was much larger and more elaborate than Carol’s, and had indoor plumbing. The food was extra caloric. There was a mountain of pop-corn, sticky buns covered with syrup and nuts, a cherry crisp with mounds of whipped cream and cookies.
Everyone (except me) ate a lot, and most, except Nicole, needed no enhanced nourishment. Nicole, who has a willowy figure and is (constantly) nursing her baby, ate three heaping plates of goodies and took one home wrapped in foil. I finally began to play. Nicole was helping me, because of the demands of the baby she couldn’t play by herself.
Mah Jongg at my house was interesting mostly because of the absence of Carol. There are 2 Bea’s. Bea 2 (second to move here) arrived (she is married to Terry, who has a bumper sticker on his truck that says “The UN is not your friend”). She said, “Carol isn’t coming, she’s breaking up with Bunny, and she has to stay home to guard her woodstove which Bunny wants to take away.” Next the other Bea arrived and said, breathlessly to Jerry, “There’s a trooper in town!”
A trooper in town is significant. About 10 years ago, when a crazy man murdered 6 people at the river landing — he shot them — it took 3 days to get a trooper out here. The crazy man then killed the trooper, and after that the matter was taken seriously. The other time I know about a trooper being here was the previous fall when someone killed a cow moose. That is a grave offence. Anyhow, Bea 2 said, “Oh, Carol called for the trooper because she was afraid Bunny would take the stove.” Everyone expressed wonder that a trooper could be summoned for such a trivial purpose. We then played Mah Jongg.
The next night Jerry and I had dinner with friends who said it was Bunny’s stove anyhow, he brought it here and installed it in Carol’s cabin. They were definitely on Bunny’s side.
I helped Carol prepare hamburgers for the 4th of July picnic which she was in charge of. There was a very big crowd there, lots of out of towners, boats, campers and trucks. Bunny was there too, sitting in a camp chair, staring morosely at the ground.
Damaris was hostess for the next Mah Jongg meeting. Her cabin is in a part of town called “Mosquito Acres,” and well named it is. It is a low lying place, the spruce trees are tall, and cabins crowded together in the gloomy shade. The inside of Damaris’ cabin, however, is elegant. Her hunting guide husband, a Norwegian, built it with superb craftsmanship. An almost sculptural stair leads to a loft balcony, heavily hung with soft bearskins. There are many native baskets, authentic masks on the walls, and interesting prints and drawings.
Soon after that game Jerry and I left Alaska and drove back to the island. Before we left Carol and Bunny were friends again.
Once again, playing Mah Jongg is easing me slowly into the routine of life in Alaska. At Sunday’s game I quickly remembered how to play, and I had good luck. I won a pair of socks hand knitted by Dana.
I am renewing acquaintance and gradually adjusting to the rhythm of life here.