Scrabble is one of the few links between me and my dad’s side of the family. There are other things we share, mainly our last name and genes. But the one hobby that my brothers and I share with them is Scrabble, and this bond is possibly the one thing that could hold us together.

The board we learned to play on was our grandmother’s. It had her name written on the inside of the box along with the date she bought it (Grace Varga – December 10th, 1964). She taught her kids how to play, and then they each taught their own kids. I know this not from experience, but from phone calls with Grandma Varga. We only met a handful of times even though we lived outside Lansing, Michigan and she lived in Buffalo, New York. The route takes around four hours,  but we rarely made the drive and she never once traveled to visit us. We had an occasional Sunday night phone call, which was essentially the same conversation each time, like a looped recording:

Grandma: “Are you still reading a lot?”

Me: “Yeah! I read this and that.”

Grandma: “That’s good, I always liked reading, too. Do you still like puzzles? Crosswords and word searches?”

Me: “I do.”

Grandma: “Well, I still like Scrabble. Your cousins and I played this week.”

Et cetera.

When I was a teenager, I found these conversations painfully repetitive and would completely avoid the room when my dad called her. He would sometimes go to visit her without us, but when I was 15 my mom and I went along with him. I hadn’t seen her since I was 9, before that when I was 5, and before that when I was born. The trip didn’t go well. We saw some other relatives, Grandma would scold me if I sat in a spot my dad liked, and we mostly sat inside her steaming hot house watching the news. At night we would play Scrabble, and that was our only common ground.

That turned out to be the last time I saw Grandma Varga, even though she didn’t pass away for ten more years. We also didn’t speak on the phone that entire time. This was both of our fault, but I do think it takes an unusual coldness not to call a grandkid for major life events. She didn’t call when I got my driver’s license, graduated from high school, turned 18, was accepted to college, graduated from college, or got married.

I was bitter about her lack of involvement and this eventually caused me to lash out. This was especially destructive with her being my only surviving grandparent. When my family was going through a dark time and she was aggressive to my mom on a phone call, that was the last straw.

She had recently signed up for the internet and I took advantage of this fresh opportunity to send her a nasty email. I told her she had never shown any interest in our family and had no understanding of even the basics of how we functioned and to continue to stay out of our lives. I almost called her a miserable sea hag but luckily deleted that line before sending it. Grandma didn’t respond to me, but sent my mom a hard copy of the email with a post-it note that said “How sweet”, along with every photo she had ever received of my brothers and me. Baby pictures included.

We didn’t have any further contact until she was on her death bed. She couldn’t speak, but I felt like I had to call her before she passed. I wrote a small speech beforehand, read it to her, and told her I loved her. I’m not sure if that last bit was really true, but it seemed to register with her. She started to sputter to say something but my aunt took the phone away. My parents told me not to drive all the way to the funeral and they went on their own. A few years later I was driving near the cemetery and asked where her grave was to leave flowers, but they said it was too hard to find and to skip it. That trip at 15 was really the last time I was near her.

Because of how little we interacted I lost out on the chance to have a relationship with my last living grandparent, and I was deprived of all the stories about that side of the family. My dad is tight-lipped about the past, but there’s so much I want to know. Why did her family leave Hungary in the 1800’s? Did they live in other countries before that? How long did Grandpa Varga’s side live in Manhattan? What were her parents like?

If games like the online version of Scrabble and Words With Friends had been developed earlier, I can see three possible scenarios taking place:

  1. We would have played together since everyone in our family competes against each other at Words With Friends, and this would have opened a line of communication which would have stopped the estrangement from ever happening.
  2. Maybe an argument would still have occurred, but through our mutual Scrabble addiction we would have reconciled via messaging within the app.
  3. No reconciliation would occur, but we’d still play each other, because we can’t not play the game, and this would still be a valuable connection.

Bloodlines don’t guarantee a bond, and having the same last name is no guarantee of friendship, but loving the same game can bring people together regardless of whatever issues they may have. Had we had access to the Scrabble app we might have had a real connection, no matter what that might have looked like.