Cards were a level playing field

Growing up, family visits in Jackson, Mississippi always included epic games of gin, hearts, and spades.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Jamil Ragland plays a card game with his son, Gabriel, in Hartford, Connecticut.

When my grandmother died eight years ago, my two brothers, two cousins, and I got to pick one thing from her house. We didn’t discuss anything. We didn’t fight. We all just wanted the card table.

In the name of family peace, my mother denied us all, pleasing no one. The table sat in the back of the family room. It was small and square and easy to overlook next to the couch-length, leopard print bench. Knowing my grandmother, the table was intended for sandwiches and company. But given its ultrasmooth top and the man she married, she couldn’t have been surprised by the purpose it assumed. 

As soon as we landed for the yearly visit to Jackson, Mississippi, a card game began and – aside from meals – didn’t stop. The rotating foursome included some combination of me, my brothers, cousins, uncle, our grandfather, and occasionally our grandmother. Hearts and spades were played; gin was the headliner.

We learned from Pop. He taught us when to let go of kings, especially if it was early and others hadn’t let go of their kings yet. Legend has it that he counted up points fast to his advantage, but no one cared. He drove a ’67 white Chevelle and wore cuff links shaped like tiny safes with a dollar bill folded up in each. He greeted every queen with “There’s a pretty lady!” He was the coolest guy, running the coolest game.

My brothers are 8 and 6 years older than I am. Whatever the sport, I needed handicaps when I bugged them enough into letting me play, although shooting left-handed, being on their knees, and/or giving me a 10-point lead didn’t have much effect. The card table was unforgiving but fair turf. An open hand was played to get comfortable; rarely was there a second. It was up to me to catch up, and while I didn’t win often, I kept my seat.

There was never tension or any beefs at the table, a dynamic that only happened in Jackson. We didn’t play when we got home to Boston, or when Pop and Grandma Sally came up, or later when my brothers would visit. I haven’t played cards regularly for about 10 years.

This last spring, my mother was clearing out some furniture, and my wife and I benefited with a dining room table. It has great rounded edges. It’s made of light-colored wood, 6 feet long and 3 feet wide. It would be perfect if it only held food, but soon after we got it, my older son came home from a birthday party with a deck of cards and curiosity. 

War, with its random, no-strategy approach, seemed like the right start for a 7-year-old. My younger son doesn’t merely watch anything, so after two hands, three-handed war was invented.

I didn’t think much of the game, but my 4-year-old quickly held his own. No one cared about the results. Cards were shared when someone ran out. The biggest competitions were if we could have three-way ties – answer, yes – and who could rhyme what word with the card about to be put down: The best so far has been “tasty” with “ace-ty.”

War quickly expanded to include animal, dinosaur, and baseball cards. Other games soon followed, and sometimes my wife joined in. Playing cards may have even helped build my sons’ math skills over the summer, but I actually don’t care. 

I couldn’t have planned any of this, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. I’m leery of carrying on traditions, since the closest I had to one growing up was taking family pictures on the stairs. I figured that playing cards was relegated to a fond memory, but apparently the game has finally made it home. It just took 30-plus years and now includes tri­ceratops. I’m starting to feel better about traditions.

Gin has also been introduced. My kids haven’t fully grasped shedding points, but that’s what open hands are for, especially when you play with three people. And dealing cards has been easy on such a smooth surface.

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