I don’t know my extended family very well. Part of the reason is that I am and always have been exceptionally bad at putting names to faces, and there are probably at least 100 people in my extended family…that I know of. My mom is one of eight kids, and my dad is one of at least eight, and despite the fact that we spent many holidays and cookouts and just regular old times with them throughout my childhood, I still don’t know the names of many of my aunts and uncles and cousins.
The other reason I don’t know them very well is because I never felt like I belonged with them – especially the folks on my mom’s side, who are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and fighting addictions of all sorts. No woman on my mother’s side has ever graduated from college (I will be the first if I can finish), and only one man – my cousin who is an aspiring doctor – has ever earned a degree.
I didn’t feel distanced from my maternal family because of their poverty (we were just as poor), or their lack of education, or their addictions. I felt distanced because my brother and I were different – and we knew it. We were weird and sheltered and shy. We didn’t understand much of the slang. We talked “like white people.” We didn’t recognize any of the pop culture references of the day. We didn’t know anything about the musicians that created the music on the radio. We didn’t cuss even among peers, and in fact we loudly called out anyone who cussed in front of us.
I didn’t feel like I belonged to my family, because everything about them just seemed so black, and everything about me was just so white. I was continually reminded of my difference at every gathering, during every phone call, at every visit. I struggled to communicate with and understand them and they struggled to do the same with me. I never joked with them, and I had a difficult time figuring out when they were joking with me, which is a situation that too easily led to hurt feelings. They loved me, of that I have no doubt, but they didn’t understand me. And, right or wrong, that made it difficult for me to love them because all the ways we didn’t fit together made me afraid of them.
I could go into the whole problematic issue of assigning “whiteness” and “blackness” to certain qualities, something that was done to me and that I did plenty to myself throughout my life, but I won’t. This entry is not about that. This is about Spades.
My family plays Spades. Everyone played around the way. We played outside, inside, at gatherings, while watching TV. We played with our peers, with our elders, with our parents and neighbors. We played for pennies or bingo chips or sunflower seeds (though most frequently, for nothing at all). We played at the card table, on the floor, on the marble steps outside our rowhouse, in the back of my father’s corner store. We played at every cookout, every birthday party, every holiday.
There were frequent arguments. There was a lot of shit-talking. Sometimes it seemed that a fight would threaten to break out, but none really did. When you played with the older members of my family, you ran the risk of getting yelled at, cussed out, belittled (albeit jokingly, if you were still young).
The older heads played Pinochle sometimes. But the rules for that game were more complicated, and small hands had trouble holding that many cards at once. My mom tried to teach me but I never got it. Pinochle was for the older folks, but Spades was for everyone.
I’ve been playing the game for twenty years. My parents, my brother, and I played Spades every Saturday night while watching Tales from the Crypt. My mom and I were always on one team, and my dad and brother were always on the other. My brother reneged at least once every game (he was the youngest player – when I was 9 he was only 7) and their team lost about 99% of the time. My dad got frustrated with losing constantly, but we never switched up the teams.
Spades has never been a mere game to me. It is a language, the only language that I was ever able to share with my extended family. I knew the rules, I knew the slang, I knew the tricks, and I knew the strategies. When I played Spades with my family, I didn’t feel different. I didn’t feel out of place. When we moved out of the poor black neighborhood that I grew up in to the ‘burbs, I spent my time playing Spades with the black kids in the neighborhood by the same rules and using the same language of the game that I’d grown up with. They made plenty fun of me for “talking white,” but when we sat down with a deck of cards, a sheet of paper, and a pencil, we were not so different. We were equals, peers. We were black children at play.
When I played Spades, I didn’t feel white. I didn’t feel like I needed to be white. And I didn’t feel like I had to prove to anybody that I wasn’t white. I felt right in my own skin. It’s taken me years to realize it and recognize it for what it was. I loved that feeling. And I still do.
Last month my mom, my brother, his girlfriend, and I all sat down for a game. We played, we shit-talked, we cussed at each other.
It doesn’t matter who won. It never has. Either way, it feels like home.