The Four Winds

Tray of Mahjong Tiles

When I was a young boy, around the age of six I remember my grandmother, Barbara (Bobbie to her friends), and her two sisters Liddy and Ruthie playing Mahjong on an old folding card table in the middle of her living room of her tiny cottage in Palo Alto. The smell of eucalyptus wafting in the sun drenched open windows. The sound of the old ivory tiles clacking against each other as they mixed them together before building the four walls. “One dot.” “Four crack.” “East wind.” “Kong.” A break for tea.

Bobbie, Liddy and Ruthie, born of missionaries, grew up in China along with their sister Claris (nickname Quady). The four made a perfect set for Mahjong and played for years in Shanghai, Kuling, Nanking and Ypsilanti when visiting on one of their parents leaves which came once every seven years. When Quady died at 21, an irreplaceable hole was left in the remaining girls’ hearts which was never more apparent than when they played Mahjong. Whoever sat at the East wind knew they could only be a painful reminder of the sister who once occupied that seat. Sometimes, as I got older, it would be me.

I learned how to play Mahjong from my grandmother and great aunts. Their own style — a mix of Chinese and American rules. I enjoyed the game not for the game itself nor for the beautiful tiles — the one bamboo, the Red and Green Dragons — but for the stories, the history and most of all for the connection it gave me to my grandmother. I tear up as I say she was, and will always be, by far the most important person in my life. It was her unconditional love that helped me survive through all my crazy, lonely travels growing up whether halfway across town or halfway around the globe. I truly and deeply believe that I would not be alive today if it were not for her.  When she died, I was lost.

I often long for those days and that Mahjong set with those beautiful ivory tiles in which for some crazy reason I have rolled up all of her love. The Winds, the Seasons, the Dragons and Dots and Cracks and Bams.

When I was 9 years old, I lived with my Aunt and Uncle and three cousins, the Boccignones.  And for a brief moment I got a glimpse of what a normal life might have looked like.  Two parents, siblings, suburbs and friends you grew up with from kindergarten to graduation.  It was short lived and I returned to the life I knew with one parent, many homes and schools and friends spread acrossIstanbul,London,Sydneyand a four western states.  Years later I returned and lived with Bobbie across the street from them for a few years while I finished high school and we often played Mahjong on Sunday afternoons.

I always felt a strong connection with my Aunt, my grandmother’s daughter, as we shared similar childhoods and were both raised by Bobbie.  I feel as if we two are the only ones left who truly knew Bobbie and Ruthie and Liddy and the history from which they came.  I think we share their pain of never feeling like we truly fit in anywhere, always longing for home, yet there is no home to which we may return.

Last October I was incredibly fortunate to share my 50th birthday with my Aunt and Uncle and on the eve of the celebration they gave me a card and Bobbie’s Mahjongg set.  I cried.  I knew what it meant for my Aunt to give me that gift for I’m sure it means as much to her as it does to me.  And for her to give me Bobbie’s Mahjong set — Bobbie’s love — to share it with me and to pass it on, was an amazing gift of love from her, my Aunt.  And in that moment, I understood that although I may have felt lost at times, they were always there — my Aunt and Uncle.  Always loving and supporting me in the background of my chaotic life.

Every soul needs a rock to anchor upon, or else it is lost.

Thank you Judy and Dell for being that rock.

And thank you for the Mahjong set.  It means the world to me.  As do you.

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