LIGHTLY ROASTED – Winning isn’t everything (but candy helps)

OK, so I’m a little competitive. Youthful summers in Maine were geared toward simple family fun, but for me, it sparked a fierce competitive spirit. Think Miss America meets “Chopped” meets “Survivor” meets “Toddlers and Tiaras.” Thank goodness I’m neurotic, or I might have tried steroids to help my game.

I’m talking cards.

It’s Mom’s fault. She gave everyone prizes, but first place got first pick: Hershey bar, raisins, gum drops, licorice. My eye was on the chocolate bar.

Mom didn’t realize what a little monster she was creating, and we had little knowledge of what psychologists called conditioning. But it took no time at all for this dog to salivate. The minute Mom pulled out the card table, Little Miss Nice Girl was outta there, replaced by a 14-year-old version of Mommy Dearest.

This many years later, when I play cards, I’m still reaching for the crown and/or the meat cleaver, whichever is closest. Take this incident:

“Wooeee,” I announce, after plunking down the winning card.

“Congratulations,” sighs my husband Ted, obviously not willing to admit my level of genius.

“Aha! Oh, ho!!! Yes!” I am shouting, high-fiving an imagined audience.

“You’re such a gracious winner. So sweet, so kind to the losing opponent,” he continues, as he clears the table of the spoils of war – I mean, the game.

“Sorry. Sorry, Ted” I giggle, uncontrollably. “Hahahahahaha! I won, I won, I won.”

Now, behaving this way with one’s spouse is one thing.

But the grandkids are coming for a week, with their Mommy (my daughter Cassie) and their aunt (my other daughter, Sally.)

Our list of proposed Maine activities is long, and after spending two days bargaining like a session of Congress, we decide on games, movies and eating. I’ve stocked the cabinets with snacks, and game prizes are hidden away, for winners and losers alike.

First up? Rummy 500. The youngest is David (just 12), so I grab my drab and dusty copy of Hoyle’s “Rules of Games” and look up Rummy. Meanwhile, my smartypants almost-14 granddaughter Emma finds the rules on her iPad. We read, review and begin. I prepare to teach the joys of family fun. Steady, Tiger-Grandma.

The game gets under way. Extremely slowly.

“Emma, dear,” I say. “It’s your turn.”

“Oh. Sorry, Grandma,” she says, looking up from her phone, picking five cards from the deck.

I take my turn, promptly and efficiently, and may I say that even though my cards absolutely stink, I play like Hoyle himself. Or herself. Whatever. In my muscle memory, as they say nowadays, I am unwrapping that Hershey bar. I mean, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s … yeah, right.

I watch David eyeing his cards. Eyes to table, back to cards, sighing – a long, thoughtful, careful, skillful approach. Eisenhower planning the Normandy invasion.

“Play, David,” someone finally shouts. Oops. “I mean, can I help you, honey?” I continue.

“It’s OK, Grandma. I’m just trying to figure out what to do.”

Cassie mentions snacks. Next thing I know, I hear the comforting sounds and smell of corn popping.

The game continues.

Three minutes later, my daughter Sally starts filming a family movie. Every five minutes someone has to go to the bathroom, always just before their turn.

“How many points do we need to win, again?” a little voice asks.

“Five. Hundred!” I bellow. Darn it. I point to the Hoyle’s and realize said little voice is that of 36-year-old Sally, who is now laughing uncontrollably as I realize she is filming me and my reactions for her new family expose.

“I suppose you think it’s funny that I take this so seriously,” I say, for now it doesn’t matter that my true nature has been revealed, and no one – no one – will be interested or believe me if I blame it on earlier conditioning. Everyone seems amused, except the grandkids. Emma has her earbuds in and is dancing in her chair. David looks up at me, with the most serious and adorable boy-face I have ever seen.

“Grandma,” he says, “What if, um, when we get to minus 100, we get to go back to zero to start again?”

I somehow, inexplicably, accidentally slam my hand down on the Hoyle’s in the center of the table.

“No! Not fair!” I bark, at which point even the children burst into laughter.

“Um, only kidding,” I say calmly. “That’s fine.”

Someone stops laughing long enough to say it’s time to get ready for the movies (but I haven’t won yet) and just like that, everyone throws whatever cards they were holding into a big pile.

I am 45 points and one turn away from winning. But it doesn’t matter.

Because I know what’s important: We had fun. And deep down?

I know where the chocolate bar is stashed.

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