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Words with Grandpa

Long before I began my obsession with Words with Friends I learned to play with words with my grandfather.

My grandparents lived in an apartment in Southern California, and my four siblings and I would spend many Sunday afternoons there. My grandmother was a writer and storyteller, often dramatic and entertaining. Grandpa was the opposite.

Grandpa was enigmatic. He mostly sat in his easy chair smoking cigarettes with his tiny TV turned on low. I don’t know what he watched–golf, maybe, or the news–but he’d have one eye on the tube and the other on the five of us. He didn’t say much. He let us climb on him when we were small, and we often made his corner into a beauty salon and combed and styled his hair endlessly, our favorite being tiny pigtails that shot out in every direction.

Inevitably, every visit would include a call for Perquackey. Grandpa would roll over in his wheelchair–he was an amputee–and we’d gather around a table spread with a felt tablecloth.

We played Perquackey by rolling ten alphabet dice. Quick as we could, we’d arrange  and call out as many words as possible before the timer ran out. The longer the list of words, the more points. Like Words with Friends, everyone looked for a familiar combination of vowels and consonants, and sometimes we’d hit pay dirt if with a roll that included M, E, A, T, S, and R. (meat, mate, team, tame, steam, stream….) But Grandpa turned the game on its head when he’d start announcing his “words.” Even the worst rolls yielded words for him.

“Ghutobbu, bogtubh, bhute,” he’d say.

“Those aren’t words,” one of us would venture.

“Of course they’re words,” he’d say. “Ghutobbu is a kind of African hut. Bogtubh, that’s how they say no in Iceland.” A twinkle would appear in his blue eyes.

We’d look at each other, invariably shrug and go on. Somehow, Grandpa always won. We weren’t clever or brave enough to make up our own words, and we’d always forget the ones he made up in the heat of the game.

Though we kept careful score and competed intensely with each other, Grandpa never cared if he won. He played to play.

I didn’t know until years after he died that he suffered from arteriosclerosis and probably diabetes–the reasons he lost his leg and eventually his life. His world got smaller as time passed. He stayed by his TV most of the day. But he was always ready for a game of Perquackey.

He taught me to play with words. He showed me the fun of invention, the thrill you get when people who know you’re making things up go ahead and believe you anyway. Words with Grandpa was the beginning of a lifetime of loving words and everything you can do with them.

Thank you, Grandpa.

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