Pots of Pennies and Toothpicks: The Best Thing My Mother Ever Taught Me


file0001847603162By 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.

Me & My Mom

Me & My Mom

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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photo credit:

cards
Mom & Me (taken by a friend of the family — kenhipkins.com — for more of his great stuff go here)

47 thoughts on “Pots of Pennies and Toothpicks: The Best Thing My Mother Ever Taught Me

  1. ksbeth says:

    your mother is a very wise woman and i’m enjoying reading your blog. thanks for reading and following mine as well ) beth

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Yes. She is!

      I am enjoying your blog, too ! Great title, too! Story of my life! My husband calls me Mrs. Magoo, LOL!

      Like

  2. I learned to drink from tiny little bottles by watching my parents play cards. Let’s get our priorities straight for the love of God.

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    • javaj240 says:

      My family didn’t go in for that “tiny little bottle” nonsense. Cans of Schaefer beer and large bottles of “Rye” were ALWAYS part of any party in my family. Alcoholism doesn’t just run in my family — it gallops!

      Like

  3. Jackie, this is a fabulous post, definitely one of my favorites. I love that your mom taught you this lesson by example. She sounds wonderful, just like her daughter.

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    • javaj240 says:

      Thank you, Helene… that means a great deal coming from you — I LOVE the way you write and the way you capture your memories. And my mother certainly has her moments. She’s unique.

      Like

  4. I loved this post. It was wonderful.

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Thank you so much — knowing what you are going through with your own mother right now, that means a great deal to me. Truly.

      Like

  5. This was a wonderful story that showed me so much about your mom (and you) – what a fantastic life lessons she imparted to you. A true gift!

    Like

  6. Loved this story Jackie! Drop me a line when you get your Freshly Pressed email on this one! Absolutely love the photo too! We were also a big card playing family. When I moved into my first apartment my mom let me take our Rummy Royale game (or something like that). I told her I didn’t think I would be able to use it because I doubted my friends had jars of pennies to bring over to play with. She said, “Well, tell them to bring over their jars of buttons.” Needless to say, the Rummy game never got used at my apartment.

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      “Freshly Pressed” means less to me than the comments that I have received from my bloggy buddies — oh, and my mother read it, too — she said she was “speechless” — it’s no easy feat to render that woman speechless, let me tell you. So, that’s good enough for me!

      Pennies, buttons, toothpicks, matchsticks — whatever works. It’s not the pot. It’s not the winning. It’s all about being together and playing the game. Sorry you never got your friends on board. There’s nothing like a rousing game of Rummy.

      Like

  7. Reblogged this on Our Heritage: 12th Century & Beyond and commented:
    I love this story. In fact, my parents have Alzheimer’s but can still remember pinochle (well, most of it, most of the time). And, my husband and I twice a week play it with them. But, my husband loves to win and enforces playing by the rules. So sometimes it gets hard to find that happy medium. Thanks.

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Thank you so much for the reblog… my mother-in-law, near the end of her life, had some trouble remembering things — she did, however, retain the ability to play cards (most of the time!). Strange how the mind works, isn’t it?

      Like

  8. I love this story. In fact, my parents have Alzheimer’s but can still remember pinochle ( well, most of it, most of the time). And, my husband and I twice a week play it with them. But, my husband loves to win and enforces playing by the rules. So sometimes it gets hard to find that happy medium. Thanks.

    Like

  9. Ned's Blog says:

    That’s a wonderful message, and one I see missing so often from parents: the ability to let their kids shine on their own. It’s such a huge confidence builder and inspires kids to be adventurous and not be paralyzed by a fear of failure. It’s wonderful that your Mom understood that, and that you have recognized it in yourself as a parent.

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Thank you, Ned.

      I have a kid who is the polar opposite of me — more like her father, is she — “shining” makes her anxious, except on the field hockey field — then all bets are off. She is, very uncharacteristically, a beast, LOL. We all need a place to shine.

      Like

  10. A good and powerful lesson from your mom.

    Like

  11. Amanda Fox says:

    I love that picture of you and your mom. It makes me smile. Why do I get this feeling like your family is really fun to be around? Because I bet they are. And Rummy 500, my grandpa taught me that. Love it!

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      We are pretty fun to be around. In fact, I like to say that we put the “fun” in “dysfunctional”, LOL. It’s so funny, really, as a kid I think I longed for a “normal” family — now, I’m glad they were so colorful.

      Like

  12. I am so much like you — always ultra-competitive. In the last ten years I’ve finally started trying to adopt your mom’s perspective. It isn’t always effective, but I think your mom has it right. I strive to be more like her.

    Like

  13. shalilah2002 says:

    This is so wonderful. Your Mother let others win because she was such a winner herself.

    Like

  14. ohlidia says:

    What a sweetie your mom is! And how right she is too!!

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Yeah, well, she’s alright (I don’t want to give her a big head —- just in case she reads these comments)!

      Like

  15. Sandra says:

    Oh, your mother is wonderful. She really made me think. I will certainly think about losing with grace in the future. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    Like

  16. conniemcleod says:

    What a beautiful and wise lesson you learned!

    Like

  17. I’m not that competitive except when I play scrabble, my son loves to win, but once in a while I know he lets me win LOL the roles are reversed, I taught him well!

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  18. You’re AMEZEBALLS Mum! Love to love you babe.

    Like

  19. It’s not about THAT is it, surely. You could be a little more romantic!

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  20. No, don’t agree.It’s taken me years to win at ALL costs. My grandfather was ruthless at chess and taught me painstakingly the same, my mother at Scrabble, my step-father at pool. I’m a ‘loser’ so should know. It’s not a game. That’s life. ‘C’ la vie. Everyone looks to win, even by losing. I think Jesus might have said similar ya know.

    Like

  21. peachyteachy says:

    I love the photo. I am perhaps less competitive than I should be. So many things, though, seem so pointless when framed by the “win-lose” thing. I did win a competition for painting a Halloween design on the window downtown. In fifth grade. Shot my wad, maybe.

    Like

  22. Ginger Kay says:

    Wow! What a wise woman your mother was! It sounds like she was a happy one, too, blessed and knew it.

    Like

  23. Good for her! I could stand to learn this lesson from your mom, too. Thanks for the insight.

    Like

  24. Rick says:

    Great post! Every play Rook? That was the choice of my family, and it’s the only card game I never got the hang of.

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      We never played card games that we had to purchases (Rook, Uno, etc.) — with the exception of the Pinochle deck, all of our card games were played from the regular deck. We were big on Yahtzee, too. Basically, we were a bunch of riverboat gamblers —- still are — you should see the excitement level around here at Kentucky Derby time (alas, we missed the Trifecta this year by one number — alas, there’s always The Preakness and The Belmont!)

      Like

  25. Vanessa says:

    Such a great post! I am the exact same as you – win at any cost. Your mum sounds like one fab woman (I can see where you get it from!) Lovely snap too. 🙂

    Like

    • javaj240 says:

      Thank you, Vanessa. I still enjoy winning, but I can also, now, see the benefits of losing — and doing so with grace.

      I love this picture, too. Someday I will have to post about “the making of” this picture. Very funny.

      Like

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