After-supper activities around our house in the 1950’s didn’t include video games, surfing the web, cell phones or i-pods, and very little television. It did include things like board games of Monopoly, Scrabble, Chinese or regular checkers.
Now, I was pretty good at Scrabble. After all, I was my class spelling champ, I studied words right along with math and geography. As long as my opponents were other kids I did just fine. But if Mama got into the game, she’d have to spot us so many points – she subscribed to crossword puzzle books!
Mama could use a handful of z’s and q’s and u’s to make the most outlandish combinations and we’d cry foul. “Look it up,” she’d say with a smile, totaling up her score. “Look it up.” Flipping through the pages of our oversize dictionary, we’d do our best to prove her wrong. Naturally she’d turn out to be right.
Card games like gin rummy were more fun and more likely to result in a random winner. Depending on who was in charge, some variety of poker (played for toothpicks, not for money, of course) might be allowed.
During summer vacation one year Uncle Mike had taken it upon himself to teach me the elements of a good poker hand and poker face, much to the dismay of my non-gambling grandparents. We used seed corn or bottle caps instead of cash, and after a summer of practice I could beat him occasionally. If I accumulated enough kernels of corn, he’d treat me to a Dr. Pepper or Red Rock Cola.
My brother and Mama learned how to play chess one year but my patience for such a high-brow endeavor in those days was entirely too low. Sit and stare at the chess board for a long time, don’t talk, just stare. Finally pick up a bishop or a knight, pretend to set him down in one square but don’t take your fingers off yet. Move him somewhere else, hover over a different square while your eyes rove back and forth, and finally plop him down in another place entirely.
Uh uh, too boring for words. I found something to do with faster action, like solitaire. If we didn’t feel like a full-fledged board or card game, we settled for simple pencil and paper games like tic-tac-toe or hangman.
No matter what combination of family and friends were in the house, there was always something interesting, educational or just plain fun to occupy our time in the evenings.
Before the advent of television in our living room, the table-top radio was usually on in the evenings. In between board games we listened to Jack Benny, Bob Hope or Burns and Allen, perhaps The Shadow (Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow Knows!) or Boston Blackie.
All these old programs are still available on CD today. I actually bought some Jack Benny, complete with full-length Lucky Strike commercials. Nostalgia galore!
If nothing of interest was on the radio, Mama usually stacked several LP’s on the stereo. The Best of the Hit Parade, Easy Listening, Big Band, folk or pop music, even the classics kept us company while we competed for houses and hotels and racked up points.
Of course, there were always things to do outside the house between school and supper time, too. Some days there were Cub Scouts or violin lessons for my brother, Brownie Scouts or piano lessons for me. Unorganized afternoons meant we could hang out with friends in a neighborhood playground or stop off at somebody else’s house on the way home.
One year my hopeful mother enrolled me in dance lessons. Our little class was supposed to learn the basic elements of ballet and ballroom dancing, starting with ballet. I did strive to get the hang of ballet steps, I really did. First position: heels together, toes out to the side, knees straight. Straight? Forget plies, I never quite achieved first, second or third position.
Then came the disastrous afternoon I arrived home without my dance costume – somehow in the few blocks between dance studio and home the bag with my dress of green and lavender ruffles simply vanished. Shortly afterward the instructor informed my disappointed mother that I wasn’t “dance material,” but without that frilly dress my heart wasn’t in it anyway. I never really missed those lessons.
These days when there’s nothing but re-runs on TV and I’ve run out of something new or interesting to read, I might settle down to play a game of Mah Jong or Solitaire. They’re on a computer screen, of course. Stashed in a drawer somewhere is an old deck of Bicycle cards but I haven’t dealt a hand with it in many years.
And the last time I played Monopoly was when Tim and I joined our church home group for game night, and Tim and the preacher teamed up on the rest of us. Now that was fun! Brought back fond memories of 1950’s Monopoly, Mama, Scrabble and all.