Don’t Get Stuck With the Old Maid!

In the blink of an eye, National Grandparents Day has rolled around again. Because I’ve already written about all four of my grandparents in columns past, that leaves only my own grandchildren as subjects for this special day.

Here’s what I want to say about those six sweeties of mine. While I’ve cherished every phase of their childhoods, I’m thrilled that five of them (the exception being one-year-old Oliver) are finally old enough to play real card games with me. I’m not talking about dividing a deck into red cards and black cards, or sorting cards into suits and putting them in low-to-high order, which can be a little complicated because it involves understanding face cards and aces.

I’m talking about “Go Fish” and “Crazy Eights” and–best of all–“Old Maid.”

One of my favorite childhood memories is of my great-aunt Sybil playing Old Maid with my brother and cousins and me. She poo-pooed the strategy of keeping secret who held the accursed card. When Aunt Sybil was dealt the Old Maid or drew it from someone else, she whooped and hollered and carried on something fierce. When someone drew it from her, she acted the same way. She’d stick the Old Maid (or a decoy) up higher than all the other cards in her hand and thus taught us what double-cross means. We laughed so hard we almost made ourselves sick.

That’s not how it is when I play with my grandkids. We’re focused and serious. My six-year-olds, Eli and Emmie, are perfecting their poker faces. June and Clara, who both recently turned five, still gasp and giggle a little at the sight of the Old Maid but are working on controlling themselves. Four-year-old Josephine mostly concentrates on not dropping her cards.

The hard part comes when the game ends and one of them is left holding the Old Maid. They’re doing better at being good sports, but there are still a few trembling lower lips and the occasional tear or two. The best thing about playing Old Maid, as Eli has wisely pointed out, is that—unlike most other games—there are multiple winners and only one loser, though that’s small consolation to the player who’s stuck with the Old Maid.

In the deck we play with, the “matches” are fruits and vegetables. Apples, oranges and bananas. Pumpkins, peppers and pears.  Blueberries, beets and broccoli. Lots of other healthy produce. And here’s the interesting part. The Old Maid card pictures a hip chick who looks to be in her early thirties. She’s dressed in faded jeans and wears a gingham bandana in her dark brown hair. This Old Maid carries a basket of fruits and vegetables in her lean, strong arms and it looks to me like she’s wearing mascara.

She’s a far cry from the Old Maids of my childhood, most of whom piled their gray hair up in a tight bun or covered it with a straw hat decorated with flowers. Those Old Maids usually wore a starched dress with a high-necked lace collar and wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of their nose. Some of them walked with a cane. Many were pictured knitting. All of which tempts me to wax philosophical about the whole idea of making a spinster of any age or appearance the object of scorn in a children’s card game.

Eli, ever the questioner, asked me not long ago what an old maid is. I told him it was an outdated and politically incorrect term for a woman who’d never been married. He shrugged and said he was just happy to be playing a game where there are lots of winners and only one loser. As long as the loser wasn’t him.

(September 8, 2019)