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All the Right Moves

I wasn’t a board game kind of kid. I was a let’s-pretend kind of kid, seriously committed to the ongoing soap opera of my Barbies and Skippers and Kens. I just never liked the abstract aspect of board games—spelling a word with seven wooden tiles or buying silly plastic houses to put on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Chess pieces were only interesting when you made them into a family—the king and queen the parents, obviously. The rooks and bishops, aunts and uncles and the pawns were the kids—the way they are in so many custody battles. The knights, of course, were the appaloosa ponies dad kept out in the paddock behind our castle.

I didn’t like board games any better even after I outgrew “let’s-pretend.”

I was forced into playing Risk shortly after meeting my first husband’s parents. I had to be polite, right? But it was a tortuously long game. Worse than that, I ended up ruling the world—which I was sure gave the wrong impression about what kind of girl I really was.

Then, once I had kids and my kids grew old enough to play board games, I saw them in a new way. Their childhoods were marked by progressions from the boring games—Candyland, Chutes and Ladders—to ones requiring skill or luck. And unlike the abstraction I’d felt as a kid playing board games, in playing with my daughters I participated in their progression through childhood as they outgrew one game for another. I never quite realized they might outgrow the pleasure of this time spent with one another.

Linnea was too little to understand the concept of Masterpiece the year I gave it to her. She loved art, so she simply ended up bidding as high as she needed to in order to buy the paintings she liked. It seemed a shame to tell her that the point of the game was to make a lot of money, not appreciate the art.

Middle school—that three-year trial through which we all must pass—were the backgammon years for Madeleine. I don’t remember teaching her how to play. But I do remember playing games with her when she came home from middle school. We actually had a backgammon song we would sing while swaying our backgammon cups back and forth as if we were in a beer garden in Bavaria.

Linnea was too young for backgammon, but she could figure out dominoes. So we started a tradition of dominoes tournaments that we’d play over the course of days—nobody can play 15 rounds in one sitting.

When they were both old enough for Clue, I realized I’d have to cede Miss Scarlett to Madeleine, who fancied herself—rightfully—a femme fatale. I became Professor Plum. Linnea liked the little red glass bead from a mancala game that was our stand-in for Mrs. White. She still calls it the Red Blob.

But sometime during Madeleine’s high school years I started to feel as though I was living out “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” She just seemed to have better things to do than play games with her mother and sister. As more time passed, Linnea had to plead with her to get her to consent to a round of dominoes.

Then, when Madeleine moved out and before I remarried, it was just Linnea and me at home. Clue isn’t a two-person game. So we began to play chess.

But I don’t have a chess-player’s brain. I would spend ten minutes agonizing over what to do with my rook while Linnea painted her toenails or texted a friend. Then in her next move she’d checkmate me, cool as a cucumber. It was pretty clear she needed a worthier opponent than me.

Now a senior in high school, Linnea sometimes deigns to play Scrabble with me—a game I still don’t much like. But we do our own version of it, using proper nouns and foreign words and nine tiles instead of seven.

I know that in a few months Linnea will be off at college and the long chapter of laughing over board games with my daughters will be, effectively, ended. Even now, those times are still rare.

But recently my husband unearthed a vintage copy of Clue, one with real rope and a black-and-white board and no Red Blob for Mrs. White.

Normally, we don’t play games during dinner. Normally, we watch television, something that I’ve finally figured out doesn’t mean we’re a dysfunctional family. But there was something undeniably more appealing about playing Clue together than watching reruns of House. Or worse, Friends.

So as Mrs. White, Mrs. Peacock and Miss Scarlett, we migrated from room to room and weapon to weapon, trying not to drip vinaigrette or chicken curry on the game board.

I’m hoping we can miss a few more episodes of Friends before Linnea leaves for college. I’m hoping we can sit around the table together a few more times, laughing, strategizing, snooping around the mansion hoping to figure out the who, how and where of things. Like we did the other night: It was Mrs. Peacock, with the rope, in the library.

—Jo Page

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