The Art of Playing Mahjong
The Art of Playing Mahjong

A few years ago I visited my grandparents at the same time an old friend of theirs, Grandma Dai, was visiting. She and her husband, a short man with spectacles and a shiny head shaped like a cod liver oil pill, were my grandparents’ longtime mahjong buddies. When they were all in relatively good health, Grandpa Dai would drive to grandma’s house, where an aluminum card table and four folding chairs would already be set up in the garage, along with a small TV dinner table where they would put nuts, an ashtray, and thermoses of tea. They would crack the garage door just enough so that the fumes from their many cigarettes would have somewhere to go, and the game would commence, stretching from the late morning until late evening.

It was an unspoken agreement my grandparents had with their children: either call before you visit, or simply drive on by when you noticed an unfamiliar car parked before a partially open garage door. My grandparents lived in a curious sort of denial: they didn’t smoke if we didn’t see it. They didn’t play mahjong for hours and hours if we didn’t see it. On occasion however, if my brother and I or any of my cousins happened to be in the vicinity, we would drop by anyway and what could my grandpa do but open the garage door fully to let us in? (For some reason, most of my family prefers to use the garage door as their home’s main entrance, leaving the front door for “company” and trick-o’-treaters.) The garage door would raise slowly, creakily, and an impressive amount of acrid second hand smoke would waft out. Even by the time the door was fully raised, much of it still lingered, casting a carcinogenic haze around the mahjong table and its players. A single 60 watt bulb lit the garage, hanging bleakly over the shiny white tiles. It was a depressing sight, and looking back, I wonder why they didn’t just play in the backyard where the sun was shining, the air was fresh, and they would be surrounded by my grandmother’s fragrant fruit trees.

On one such impromptu visit, I recall seeing my grandfather standing imposingly at the front of the garage door, several feet away from the recently vacated mahjong table, his hands behind his back, an impatient expression on his face. I had never played mahjong at the time, but I remember how the table looked: the long flat clear green plastic bars standing against a stout army of green-backed white tiles still unplayed. A small pile of used tiles sat in the middle: there was no mistake that we had interrupted them in the middle of an epic game. He bid us hello, and through the haze we saw Grandpa and Grandma Dai sitting at the table but in process of pushing themselves away. Grandma and Grandma Dai’s hair seemed to blend in with the smoke. Each had a small pile of pennies in front of them, small stakes for a game whose tiles are based on ancient Chinese currency, and on the tv tray next to them I spied the small lacquered guitar-shaped ashtray, a kitschy relic from God knows where, filled with smoking butts, some of which still burned like incense.

“Hello, children,” Grandma Dai would say, and we would say hello and nod politely, stiffly, for we knew that smoking was wrong and caused diseases and we could sense my grandparents’ discomfort that we had seen this relatively reckless side of them.

Sometime before I went to college or perhaps when I was in college Grandpa and Grandma Dai stopped coming around, and my grandparents gave up smoking. We no longer saw Grandpa Dai’s car in the driveway and the garage door was either completely open or completely closed. The Mahjong table stood folded next to the refrigerator in the garage, alongside the plastic drawers where my grandma stored her “special” shoes for going out. Over the years the smell of smoke, which had permeated the wooden walls of the garage, dissipated and was replaced by the smell of laundry, footsteps, and dust.

My grandparents still played the occasional game of mahjong, with whom I know not, but as the years stretched on, occasional petered out to never. I suppose hours and hours of the same game can get exhausting, but on some level mahjong, along with smoking and whatever other things they enjoyed in their younger years, seemed to them a thing of the past, intrinsically tied to their younger years (“younger” is also relative. I am talking about their seventies). When I visited and happened to see the mahjong table, I would ask about Grandpa and Grandma Dai, and my grandparents would say, “They are doing well, I think.” Then a few years back, before I saw Grandma Dai again, the story changed to “Not too well, Grandma Dai is sick.”

She had some sort of intestinal thing, my grandparents couldn’t say exactly, but each time I mentioned her grandma would shake her head and say, “She hasn’t got long.”

Then that day a few years ago, I was at grandma’s house when Grandma and Grandpa Dai suddenly dropped by for a visit. She came walking in through the garage door and I was surprised to observe that she was much thinner than when I’d last seen her. All the silver that had been in her short, curly hair back in their mahjong days had disappeared. Her entire mane had become a pure, clean white, as though her sickness and its subsequent “cure” had shocked her. Her complexion was clear, free from sunspots and though at that moment her body radiated fatigue and frailness, her eyes seemed bright. Whatever disease she had, she had fought it and now had energy to stay and chat a while to chat with grandma, whose health at the time was still quite robust.

When the Dai’s left, I turned to grandma and said, “She looks quite good, and she’s lost some weight.” Grandma huffed and shook her head in the way she does when it’s clear there are too many things I don’t understand, “She’s too thin, and she is weak. She hasn’t got long.”

That was many years ago.

Last Sunday November 11 at my grandmother’s funeral, I spotted Grandma Dai’s white mane from a mile away. She walked slowly on her granddaughter’s arm towards the chapel where two long lines of grandchildren stood all in black to welcome attendees. As her figure grew closer I saw that she wore a single black glove on her right hand and oval spectacles fitted with transition lenses. Aside from the mournful expression on her face, she appeared to be in good health. She had maintained her slender frame despite having shrunk a few inches since we last met and walked more steadily than my grandmother could in the last two years. Grandpa Dai was just a few steps behind, also in good health. They both moved, at least it seemed to me, without pain or shortness of breath, without walkers or canes, apparatuses that had become necessary in my grandmother’s last year. When they saw my grandfather, now an old widower, grandma Dai broke out into silent, heaving sobs. He patted her on the back and told her to buck up.

“My old half is in a better place,” he said.

After the service my family stood in a line, facing those who had attended and thanked each guest. They made a long line that wrapped around the chapel to view the body for a final time and when it was Grandma Dai’s turn, she crumpled again, grasping each of her departed friend’s children and burying her face into lapels and black cardigans. From where I stood near the end of the line, I could see her white hair disappearing into the arms of first my uncle, then my aunt, then my other uncle and my mother. She made her way slowly down the line until the casket was in view again just beyond her small figure.

Soon she was standing before me, the frail woman my grandmother had so many years ago, said with utmost certainty would not make it. She cried with hearty gasps of air into clear, healthy lungs. I thanked her for coming and she grasped my hands, putting the gloved hand on top of mine, an odd combination of paper and cloth. Grandpa Dai nodded with a sad smile. She let go of my hand and I watched them go, certain that they had more than a few years ahead of them. I looked back at the casket, my grandma’s own salt and pepper hair just visible atop the cherry wood edge. I wished her spirit patience. She would have her old mahjong gang back to play at a celestial table with heavenly cigarettes whose fumes would form clouds – that was certain as Mahjong’s prevailing East wind – but she would have to wait.

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