Love of Mah Jong started in the Catskills

14 Jan

One rainy summer day in Kauneonga Lake, my Mom pulled out her mah jong set.  It was the start of my love of the game.  Soon my grandmother came over.  And for hours, my Grandma, Mom, sister and I played maj.  I remember it as if it was yesterday.

I don’t know exactly how old I was, but probably about 12 since my sister had to be old enough to play.

I just know that we sat in the kitchen of the bungalow, with tea and cookies, and played.  In the beginning it was slow, because they were teaching us. But by the afternoon, my sister and I began to play with more assurance, making the games quicker.

That summer we played every time it rained.  I almost looked forward to bad weather.  Almost, because compared to the allure of the lake and outdoor activities, mah jong was second.  But being together with my Mom and Grandma and sister, playing mah jong was just so much fun.

I was excited because my Mom played every week with a group of friends.  Each week they played at a different home.  When they played in our home, even though we were not supposed to disturb them, as I got older, I was allowed to watch for a bit.

Now I understood the game.  Now my Mom, my Grandma, my sister and I had our own activity; something just for us to do when the weather was dreary.

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Those memories remain.  And each time I play mah jong, a little bit of me thinks back to those days.  I now use my Grandma’s mah jong set, while my sister has my mother’s set.

I enjoy mah jong so much I tried to spread the joy by organizing a special mah jong program through a local organization. We brought in the curator of a Mah Jong exhibit at the Battery Park Museum in New York City. As a way to advertise it, we played mah jong on the radio!

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People listened to the lecture and slide show, ate Chinese food, played mah jong, and examined sets that others had brought to share.  An important part of this museum exhibit was people playing Mah jong in the Catskills. They even had a photo of people playing in a pool!

I play in two groups.  One group I have been playing with for 13 years.  We started because we live in the same neighborhood and wanted to get out a bit.  We meet once a month to play this game that has been passed down from our mothers.  All of us have sets that belonged to our mothers, grandmothers or aunts.  I actually also have my mother-in-law’s set.

When we started playing our children were in still in elementary, middle and high school.  Now the youngest are still in college. But the older ones are working and living away from home.  We are empty nesters. 

When we come together we share memories.  We have helped each other though emotional upheavals: death of a parent, children moving far away, a spouse’s retirement.  We listen to stories about vacations, jobs, volunteer work.  We have been to each other’s children’s bar/bat mitzvahs, high school graduation parties.  We are waiting for the weddings to begin.

We planned special events. Like the time we all had our mothers in town over Easter, and decided to play.  Moms played at one table, daughters at the other.  Two generations enjoying the same game while laughing, snacking and sharing a memory.  Sometimes we go out for lunch, or celebrate a birthday.

Mah Jong is so much more than a game for me.  I often say it is the game I love to hate and hate to love.  But in reality, it is a game that brings back so many memories.   And teaching it to my daughter meant so much.  When she was in eighth grade I actually volunteered to teach a group at her school for students who wanted to learn.  Once a week the students played for an hour, while I and several other moms taught.  It was wonderful.  In fact my second mah jong group includes another mom who taught with me.

Although my daughter does not play now, I hope that one day she will remember fondly playing with my Mom and me.  And I hope, that just hearing the click of the tiles brings back moments of joy.

In the meantime, I promised one of my cousins that I would teach her to play mah jong.  This summer I hope we will finally have a cousins’ game in the only place possible for us to play: Kauneonga Lake, Bethel Township, Sullivan County, New York.

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