A few unexpected friends supported my family when I became a single mother. The benefits of these intergenerational interactions remain.
“Do you think our friends will be there to play?” my twelve-year-old son asked as we got ready to go swimming.
“Probably,” I said, with a smile.
I knew that when he said “friends” he meant a group of older neighbors. These men and women who sat at a picnic table with an umbrella chatted with all the pool goers and taught my boys and I how to play Rummikub the summer we moved into our house after the divorce . Our friends were between 60 and 80 years old. Doris and Stan, Sue and Joe and George (“the Bachelor”) held court while others came and went depending on the day and the weather.
I knew that when he said “friends” he meant a group of older neighbors.
Doris, a petite woman with tanned skin, a shiny bathing suit and neatly styled white hair, brought her red and white zippered case. As she reviewed the rules of the tile game, her husband Stan, an introvert, sat next to her and listened to the Phillies on his radio.
We discovered each member of the gaming gang through their gaming personality. Doris thrilled us with her fiery, competitive spirit and sly cackle. George made us laugh, “I remember when I was fit and beautiful in my bathing suit like you two.” Sue and Joe offered equal parts snacks and advice as we considered our next moves.
Learn more about Rummikub
We had never heard of Rummikub until that summer, although we had played the card game 500 Rummy. Ephraim Hertzano, a Romanian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel in the 1940s, created Rummikub when the communist regime banned card games because they were “decadent”. After the family moved to Israel, they made the games at home and sold them to friends and later through door-to-door sales. Today, around 50 million games have been sold worldwide.
The game, which uses many rummy rules, is played with colored plastic tiles. The strategic element appealed to my eldest son, a patient old soul, who quickly picked up on the intricacies of the game and worked to get his way with veteran players.
“Don’t think we’re going to let you win,” they reminded my sons. “You must do it yourself, fair and squarely.”
My youngest son, 10, loved the raucous nature of the game and enjoyed a round with the group’s jovial banter before rushing off to play with the kids in the water. George called it: “As a boy, I swam like a fish. I cannonballed so many times I almost emptied the pool.”
Our afternoons by the pool served as a refuge for me, a newly divorced mother learning to live without my partner for 15 years. When my work deadlines were met and our friends entertained the kids, I relaxed and caught up on the neighborhood news or had a few moments of rest in the sun.
One day, as the Rummikub was ending and the sun was setting in the sky, the conversation shifted to dinner. I mentioned that I didn’t feel like going home to cook dinner.
“Let them have cereal tonight,” Doris exclaimed. “Make it easy for once. They will survive.”
As I struggled with the weight of solo parenthood, Doris gave insight into her motherhood years. Some nights I could make it easy for myself and not feel guilty. The children would be fine. I didn’t have to take everything seriously. Then she relayed, as she used to do, her evening meal plan. “Tonight we are going to eat a nice egg salad with corn and strawberries. Light and easy, refreshing.”
Share their life philosophies
Another time, the couple shared that selling their home and buying the downstairs condo was the best decision they made. Now they had more time to do fun things. I had downsized to a bigger house and while I yearned for my garden and the boys missed the grassy backyard, it was indeed more manageable. And that’s exactly what we needed – more time together and less time doing house maintenance.
Even now, years later, one of us will mention one of his jokes – “You two need to work on your poker faces.”
The gang also slipped my sons some of their life philosophies. When we greeted Doris with a “Hi, how are you?” she replied, “Great. I got up today.” or “I’m still breathing!” and laughed. My sons laughed with her.
One afternoon, George, usually the prankster, got serious between games. “Make sure you do well in school and never try drugs or hang out with people who do,” he said. His voice was shaking and the boys, wide-eyed, nodded. The other players whispered their agreement and play resumed.
Spending time with these older friends exposed them to different perspectives and provided a chorus of guiding voices. This made them feel welcome and valued in a period of transition when they were particularly fragile.
We played at Rummikub for several summers, but never as much as this first year. As the group grew, they spent less time in the afternoon heat and my sons were more occupied with sports activities. In the fall a few years later, I learned that Doris had fallen and needed surgery. Then a friend called to explain that while in rehab, Doris developed a blood clot from DVT (deep vein thrombosis) and died.
Memories of our summer days at the pool
I thought, Now I have to tell them. As they came home from school and put down their backpacks, I said, “I have some sad news. Doris is gone. My sons, lanky teenagers, snuggled up and hugged me in our little kitchen. “She was a good friend,” one said. “And so funny,” said the other.
After a few tears, we did what we always do when we think of playgroup: we told stories about our summer days at the pool. Even now, years later, one of us will mention one of his jokes – “You two need to work on your poker faces.” Or “Always vertical!” – and we smile. And the days when someone growls, “What are we eating?” I say, “cereal!” and laugh. All is well, indeed.
Stan lived many years after Doris passed away and I inquired about him whenever I saw their daughter Karen in town. He recently died, and Karen texted me to stop by as she prepared her parents’ condo for sale. We kissed in the entrance of the almost empty house.
“I wanted you and the boys to have this,” she said, handing me the red and white zipper case, now worn and water stained. “I know how much they loved playing with mom, and she wishes they had it.”
I pulled the case closer to my chest, sniffing tears. “She was the best.”
The game is in a cupboard in our living room. Although we don’t play it often, the memories and lessons of our unexpected friends are always with us.