By nature I am a highly competitive person. I like to win, to excel, to achieve. Who doesn’t? Well, my mother for one. She doesn’t seem to care about it. (The one exception to this rule is Bingo! — my mother really likes to win at Bingo!)
Not only does she, by and large, NOT care about winning, she has been known to deliberately LOSE — to allow someone else to win. And not just her children. Lots of people “let” their children win. No. My mother would let other adults win. Crazy, right?
My mother enjoyed cards — she and her friends played “Pinochle” and “Canasta” like it was their JOB! She taught us, my sisters and I, to play card games — she started us out with “Old Maid” , we progressed to more advanced games like, “Crazy Eights” and “Rummy 500”. As we got older, we were eventually allowed to join in the extended family games of “Spoons” and “Poker”. My mother was proud that she had raised a pack of card sharks.
I can remember one time when I was about eight or nine, during a family get-together that inevitably led to a card game — all the adults were sitting around the table playing gin rummy — when I witnessed what I considered unfathomable behavior. My mother, rummy in hand (she could have “blitzed” — taken the whole pot!), slowly got rid of her melds. This was shocking to me. Shocking! Not because the stakes were very high — I think they played for pennies — if pennies were too dear, the pot would be filled with toothpicks.
I could barely restrain myself from commenting, but I knew better than to do so. If I had learned one thing about card games, and I had learned a few things by that point, it was that if the adults allowed you to watch, you kept your mouth shut. You didn’t tip their hands. My cousin and I had made that mistake once and been banished to hanging out with the little kids in the playroom. Play-Doh and Colorforms were not nearly as interesting as observing the strategy of the adult card games. Not by a long shot.
The minute I got into the car, I blurted out, “Mom! Why’d ya let Pop-Pop win that hand? Ya had him on the ropes, Ma!. Why’d ya do it? WHY?” (Yes. As a young child I often spoke like one of “The Bowery Boys” — particularly after spending any amount of time with my cousin, Timmy — he was a master of impersonation and mimicry.) My mother just turned to me and said, “Winning is more important to him than it is to me. Winning makes him feel good about himself. He needs it. He doesn’t have much in his life. I have your father and you girls. I don’t need to win a silly card game.”
Seriously. THAT was her answer.
Not surprisingly, my mother has applied this same thinking to most other things in her life. She often stepped aside, made sacrifices, held back her winning hand, so that others (mostly her children) could surpass her.
I wish I could say that I embraced her philosophy. I didn’t. It took me years to fully comprehend that sometimes losing has its own strategy. I spent the greater part of my life striving to be better at one thing or another, trying to overtake one person or another. (Sadly, I must admit, that sometimes that person was even my mother!) It got me nowhere. I don’t even have a stockpile of pennies or toothpicks to show for it.
I never really understood my mother’s altruistic nature. Not until I had a child of my own. Then I got it. Then I understood. There are, as it turns out, far more important things than winning. Life, regardless of how much money you make or how successful you become — by your standards or by someone else’s — is not, in the end, measured by how much you’ve “won”. More often, it’s measured in the ability to recognize that someone else needs to shine.
The best thing that my mother ever taught me, the thing that took me far too long to learn, is that winning a game of cards (or having a nicer car, better clothes, or a cleaner house) is necessary to those who lack emotional strength — to others, who are fortunate enough to have an abundance of the latter, the former rarely matters at all.
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