Playing Cards with Grandma

A simple game shaped three generations


I have fond memories of playing cards with my Grandma, and my experiences with her are probably why I love playing games to this day. In the years since she passed away in 2003, playing cards with her has become one of the fondest memories I have of our time together.

As I’ve grown up I’ve gotten a bit of a different perspective on the role that cards played in her life. I can now see that what seemed like a simple pastime was a force for gender equality, religious temperance, and intellectual stimulation for a woman who had precious little of each during her lifetime.

Married at 17

My grandmother Opal Ulrey married my grandfather Curtis Ayers when she was 17. She was working at the Norfolk, Virginia naval base and met him, a sailor drafted into the navy, in the end days of World War II. By the age of 18 she had her first child (my mom) and was a mother on a farm in my grandfather’s rural home town of Plymouth, North Carolina.

I’m 31 with no kids, and in telling this story I can’t imagine the breakneck speed with which her life changed from a young girl who’d just moved to a big city to a married mother on an isolated farm.

From Farm to City to Farm

Grandma was born on a farm in Roanoke, VA. At the age of 14, she quit school and moved the the relative metropolis of Norfolk, VA to find work to help support her brothers and sisters. She was very intelligent and had been doing well in school but her new life left no time to finish her studies. Among the scant possessions she brought with her to her new life: her Latin textbook.

Norfolk was almost certainly the biggest city my grandmother had ever seen.

Without a High School diploma, her chances of becoming a nurse or teacher (the two main career paths open to women in that time in Virginia) were essentially nonexistent. This must have been a disappointing realization. Still, the freedom and autonomy of her job at the naval commissary hopefully was a welcome change from the drudgery of cooking and chores.

It certainly broadened her social circle. She met many people while working that job, including my grandfather. His first words to her:

“Hiya, beautiful.”

In addition to love, I imagine that the promise of freedom and autonomy of married life must have been a motivation for marrying my grandfather. But after settling in to Plymouth, it likely offered very little freedom. I know she loved my mother and my aunts and uncles very much but with three kids to care for on a remote farm by the age of 22, I think this must have been quite different from the life she would’ve imagined for herself when she arrived in the ‘big city’ of Norfolk just a few years before.

The house in Plymouth, NC where my mother was born and my grandmother raised her and her siblings.

Playing cards in Plymouth

My mother has often told me how my grandparents used to play games like Canasta and Bridge with other couples in Plymouth. For a long time I thought of this as a quaint example of what people used to do for fun before there was TV.

As I’ve learned more about the rest of her life it’s struck me how these games must have been an oasis for her. She was able to host or visit another couple for a change of pace from raising kids and some rare intellectual stimulation. Learning both Canasta and Bridge as an adult, I’ve seen there is quite a bit of strategy to both. As much as I love card games, I think I can’t imagine how important they were to her in the intellectual desert of 1940s Plymouth, North Carolina.

Religious Temperance

My Grandma and Grandpa attended a Freewill Baptist church, the closest to their farm. Like many Southern Baptist churches, this church taught that dancing, drinking and playing cards were all sins. I’m not sure whether anyone other than the couples they played with knew of their card playing or, for that matter, how seriously people took this teaching. But they continued to play in contradiction of the teachings of their church.

I remember being amazed when I first heard this as a child. I didn’t know that priests could be wrong or that sometimes it was OK to disobey what they said to do. In the face of the most powerful and pervasive social influence in their small town telling her “playing cards is a sin,” my Grandma was willing to say, from experience, “no, it’s not”. And our family has enjoyed playing cards together ever since.

In the midst of the Jim Crow South my grandparents’ card playing was a relatively small rebellion considering the magnitude of other forms of misdirected religious zeal, to be sure. But it planted a seed of free-thinking in our family that I have inherited.

Empathy

This historical and biographical context around card games adds depth to the memories that my mother and I both have of Grandma teaching us games like Old Maid, War, and Casino. When she was teaching us these rules, how to shuffle cards, and how to deal it was so much more than a simple game for children. She was giving us a gift that had helped her be treated as an equal at a table with men. It was a symbol of free-thinking in the face of religious zealotry. And it was an oasis of intellectual stimulation in a life that had failed to do her deep intelligence justice.

I feel immense gratitude for the fact that I’d never thought of games as any of these. I’ve not been professionally or politically marginalized the way she was, and I’ve had abundant opportunities for intellectual stimulation thanks to a sense of the importance of education my mother inherited from her. But by mixing the context of her life and time into my memories of her I think I’ve arrived at a deeper understanding of how a strong and optimistic woman laid the foundation for much of what I’m most thankful for.

Thank you, Opal Ayers. I miss you.