A few days ago I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to speak with Annelise Heinz. She is working on a doctoral dissertation related to the history of Mah Jongg in the US from 1920 to 1960. We had a lengthy conversation about my memories of Mah Jongg …the game itself, the people who played it, and life as it was at that time.
And, like a bucket filled with fish hooks, as we pulled out one memory it linked to another. It is amazing to me that there are times I cannot remember the items on my shopping list as I enter the supermarket, but, clear as day, I was able to pull up names and events from 50 years ago.
The summer of 1964 kicked off as we packed up our car and headed to the Catskills for our traditional bungalow colony experience in Mountaindale, NY. And, always the last item to be slipped into a narrow space left in the trunk was my mother’s Mah Jongg set, because, summertime was Mah Jongg time. My mother and her friends would play Mah Jongg for hours every afternoon while we were in day camp, and then again in the evenings when we were happily catching fireflies or playing ring-a-levio.
After day camp we would stand around the Mah Jongg tables and watch as our moms played their last hands so that they could then turn their attention to preparing dinner. We felt so lucky to be able to pack up the sets for them, always making sure that the tiles matched evenly in the box so we knew all of them were accounted for. Soon we began to play around with the tiles before we packed them up. Building walls and picking tiles, putting them on the Mah Jongg card, and flippping them up just like our moms did. We practiced that tricky move many times!! We even picked and threw, naming the tiles (which we must have learned from years of watching and listening) and racking the new ones. The only thing we didn’t do was actually try to make a hand because we didn’t know how. Our faux Mah Jongg games were wonderful!!
And then, I’m really not sure if it was their idea or ours, but our moms told us that they would teach us how to really play. There were times we each shared a rack with our mom as she explained how to read the card, pass the tiles, and form a hand. Other times, as we became more competent and independent, one mom would stay with us to guide our play. It was such a seamless, natural learning experience for us all! We looked for every opportunity to play and practice. I was totally hooked…and I remain so to this day.
Here’s to the next 50 years of Mah Jongg.
And…thank you Mom!!