Generations united by canasta

It's just a card game, but all the family loves it.

It's said that some families have a streak of madness running through them; mine has a rash of canasta. I know that facility with the rules, strategies, and nuances of the old card game dates me, but I take solace in the fact that my son, just 22, plays a mean game himself, as do several nieces and nephews.

Once they were old enough to graduate from "war" and "Uno," canasta loomed on their horizons, as it did for me as a child – the era when neighborhood moms gathered for weekly "canasta club" and children (with nothing better to do than amuse themselves on rainy days) turned with dreamy ennui to board games and cards.

I don't remember a time when I didn't know what it meant to meld, capture, or lose a cornucopia of discards (canasta is named for the Spanish word for basket), pick up a desperately needed joker, count my points past the magical 5,000, or shuffle a double deck with easy arching aplomb.

So popular was the game in the 1950s that Manhattan's Regency Club and the Association of American Card Manufacturers attempted to standardize the rules. But the effort was hopeless from the beginning.

If ever a game was meant for "home rule," it was canasta. My friends and I took pains to adjust to the rules observed in one another's households.

I have no idea if the bonus 100 points for picking an "exact deal" (27 cards, including one to start the discard pile) from the double deck at the game's beginning originated at a Castleman Road home or not – but it remains an institution at one address there.

On visits to my Rochester, N.Y., home, I know better than to try and read more than the headlines with my early-­morning coffee. Mom will have been up for an hour waiting to pounce for the decks and begin dealing.

We talk as we play, often losing focus on the game but exchanging what might never have been shared without such time spent at the same kitchen table not actively eating (although we sometimes do that over a game, too).

Our tournament scores after a week often fill a pad and somehow end up closely matched.

Of course, when one of us has a lead of four or five games, it's "all about skill," or "all about luck," depending on which one of us you ask.

There will be times when I beg off to catch up on editing work and Mom to put in her volunteer hours at the local hospital gift shop, but we are back at canasta again come evening.

Here in Bloomington, Ind., I have only a couple of friends who play canasta, and we never seem to find the time.

My son, Tim, is too busy being a student and father to indulge me, although I already have my eye on possibilities with his son, 2-year-old Connor, whom I intend to groom to the game as soon as he can talk and count fluently. (As a first step I will inject a whole new meaning to educational flashcards.)

Charlie plays gin rummy with me, but he balks at canasta, having skipped that on his way to proficiency in bridge, which I, in turn, refuse to learn. Rummy at least provides common ground.

It's as if I have found in canasta all that I really want or need from a game of cards.

After all, it absorbs without precluding conversation; travels well across cultures, distance, and generations; almost perfectly balances fortune with skill; and slows down time. If that's not a stacked deck in favor of a card game, I don't know what is.

I recently visited a canasta-playing aunt near Chicago, but didn't need to pack a deck of cards in my suitcase, knowing that Marylin would have two decks handy.

It was a fine family evening – despite her victory.

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