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Who Wants to Play Scrabble?

I’m a right-brain thinker. While most people use both sides of their brains in work and in life, right-brain thinkers tend to be creative, emotional and intuitive. (I’ll claim two of those attributes.) They tend to be imaginative and innovative thinkers and gravitate towards careers as artists, teachers or writers. Check. Two out of three again.

I grew up in a family of creative, Norwegian right-brain thinkers. I inherited a love of books – words in general – from my parents and started reading at a very young age. In 4th grade, I burned through the entire SRA Reading Lab collection before Thanksgiving and was promoted to the 6th grade reading class. In 7th grade, I read the unabridged version of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and followed that with some lighter fare, namely The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer.


It may not surprise you that right-brain thinkers make good Scrabble players. Scrabble, originally called Criss Cross, was invented in 1931 by – I’m not making this up – an architect named Alfred Butts. In order to be a good Scrabble player, it helps to be well read with an expansive vocabulary. There are some exceptions to that rule, however. Take my youngest brother Pete, for example. His longtime claim to fame is that he’s never read a book, yet he’s a terrific Scrabble player. Third or fourth best in our family according to my reckoning. You also have to understand basic strategy, know a lot of quirky two-letter words like ZA, FE, QI, JO and XU and be able to quickly visualize words from the scrambled tiles in front of you. Finally, there is some luck involved when it comes to picking letters blindly out of the bag. As any Scrabble player will tell you, it’s tough to win with a tray full of vowels.

Whenever we get together as a family, somebody invariably says, “Who wants to play Scrabble?” We’ll get the board set up and four players will take their seats around the table. My younger brother, Mike, is arguably the best player in our family. He’s a crossword aficionado with legendary Scrabble skills, as he himself will tell you. Any time somebody beats Mike, it’s a feather in the ol’ cap! Our Scrabble games are often contentious with plenty of smart talk and arguing.


Dad: “Oh, feeda,* you’re so lucky! You always get the best letters!”


Pete: “Are you kidding me? I’ve got nothing but vowels!”


Dan: “Pretty hard to win when Mike gets all the counters!”


Mike: “Bingo! I just laid ‘em all down! That’s 78 points!”


And off we go.

One of the last times I played Scrabble with my dad and brothers stands out in my memory. Lisa and I had traveled to North Mankato, Minnesota, to see my mom whose health was failing. Hospice had been called by the time we got there and she was resting in bed in the living room of my parents’ townhome. Mike had been living with them for several years to help care for them as their health declined. On this trip, my younger sister Liz had also driven up from Wisconsin to spend time with us.


While mom lay with her eyes closed, no longer able to communicate, the four of us fired up a Scrabble game while Liz and Lisa sat with her. As usual, our game included the normal amount of good-natured ribbing and smart talk, along with the usual arguing and complaints that Mike always got the best letters. After the game was over, my sister came over to the table with a stern look on her face. She said, “Could I talk to you guys in the bedroom for a minute?”


We looked at each other nervously, got up and followed her into the guest bedroom. She closed the door, turned to us, and (apologies for thinking of no other way to phrase this) tore us each a new one!


“You guys should be ashamed of yourselves! You know how mom hates it when you argue over a stupid Scrabble game! Even though she can’t talk, I know she can still hear you! From now on, the rest of the night, there will be no more arguing over Scrabble!”


We all swallowed, and nobody said a word.


“Oh, and by the way,” she continued. “One more thing. There will be no more talking about sports the rest of the night!” With that, she stormed out of the room and slammed the door. I wonder if mom heard that?


As you might expect, my dad was not used to being chastised by his youngest daughter. Nor were her three brothers. However, we received the message with some humility and inwardly resolved to respect her demands. With our tails between our legs, we walked quietly out to the dining room and started another game.


In my sister’s defense, she had made a couple valid points. Mom did hate when we argued. She had patiently born the burden of being an outnumbered underdog in our household for the entirety of her marriage and years as a mother. My dad and siblings, especially my brothers, cared about one thing and one thing only: SPORTS! Period. End of story. Vikings and Packers. Twins and Brewers. Gophers and Badgers. Pro sports, college sports, high school sports and let’s not forget golf! You name it, we loved it!


Mom pursued more refined activities. She enjoyed listening to classical music; she was an excellent pianist and organist; she was a writer and artist who created many beautiful projects. She didn’t give a hoot whether the Vikings or Packers won a football game.


As we played Scrabble in silence, Mike laid down another seven-letter word. “Oh, for Pete’s sake!” my dad said, his voice rising again.


The rest of us at the table cringed and together we all said, “SHHHHHH!” And then we started giggling, worried that Liz had overheard his outburst.


After the game, we sat together in the living room struggling to think of novel topics of conversation, given the fact that sports talk had been forbidden. As the conversation lagged, my dad, purely out of habit, asked, “Hey, does anybody know if the Timberwolves won tonight?” Realizing what he had done, he said, “Oops!” and put his hand to his mouth as if he could stuff the words back in. Pete burst out laughing. Then Mike and I started laughing. Then dad started laughing. It was so contagious that even Liz and Lisa joined in. We laughed until tears streamed down our faces. If mom could indeed still hear us, my hope is that she heard her right-brain, Norwegian family laughing uncontrollably, and I hope she realized that I won the last game.


*feeda: a Norwegian/American expression of disgust or disapproval

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I can just hear all that went on in that house. You men were a handful and leave it to Liz to call you out on your behavior. Way to go Liz and Lisa too, two strong Christian women I admire.

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