By Melissa W. Hunter
My introduction to mahjongg began almost fifteen years ago when a friend asked if I wanted to join a group of Jewish mothers living in Mason who were learning to play. I didn’t know much about the game at the time, but the idea of spending an afternoon “schmoozing” while learning from a seasoned player was appealing, so I immediately agreed. The day we met, the first thing I noticed was the delicious arrangement of food. I wasn’t surprised, as most Jewish events revolve around good food. There was a spread of popcorn and chips with dips, charcuterie boards, baked desserts, fruit trays, and even mimosas. Soon, my plate was full, and so was my stomach. After a good half-hour of chatting, we finally settled down at the tables (two tables for eight players) and turned our attention to the older woman from Hadassah who had agreed to teach us the game. I admit, I was overwhelmed at first. Reading the mahjongg playing card was like deciphering a secret code. There were specific rules for combining tiles, rules for how to use jokers, and terms like Pung and Kong. The tiles had names like Crack, Bam, Dot, Flower, Winds, Soaps, Dragons. The small engravings on the tile surfaces were artistic yet baffling. But the woman who taught us was patient. She walked us through the rules and helped break down what the letters and colors on the playing card meant. After a few open hands, I was eager to hone my newly-acquired skills. We all agreed to meet the following week and pick up where we had left off.
This soon became a weekly tradition. After about a month, we were playing without the help of our teacher. Our games weren’t fast – we were lucky if we finished one or two hands over the course of a few hours – but that didn’t really matter. This was a chance to talk and share stories about our lives. We were all mothers and wives. Our weekly games became a form of therapy where we discussed everything from marital issues and raising our children to the more trivial subjects of carpooling and what to make for dinner. We created a calendar and rotation of homes where we’d meet to play. Whoever hosted always had a lovely spread of food. This was “my time” in the week, sacred time I carved out just for me.
Mahjongg quickly grew to mean more to me than just playing a game. It became the foundation for a bond among women who were like family to one another. We were a sounding board for each other as we planned our children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and, later, graduation parties and even weddings. We discussed our feelings as our children prepared to leave home, as we watched our parents age, as we dealt with our own ailments. We celebrated each other’s milestones and consoled each other during times of hardship. We counted off the years with each new mahjongg card we purchased.
During one game, we gossiped about celebrities who also enjoyed mahjongg. “Look,” my friend said, pulling out her phone and logging onto one of her social media accounts. “Sarah Jessica Parker just posted about how she plays with her own friends.” We decided to take a picture of our table and invite her to join us. We created a post that read, “No joking SJP! Join us in Cincinnati for a game of mahjongg! We will provide Graeters and Skyline,” and tagged her in it. We didn’t get a reply, but that didn’t matter. It was fun to know we were in good company.
A few years ago, I was set to host a luncheon game. Earlier in the morning, I was writing with a fellow author friend when I told her I had to wrap up by noon to welcome my guests for our weekly game. She was curious. “Do you mind if I sit in on the game?” She asked.
“Of course not,” I replied. “The more the merrier!”
During the game, she sat by my side as I explained the rules and tiles. The student had become the teacher. Soon, she was joining in on the conversation and laughter around the table. After everyone had gone home, she texted to say she had enjoyed the afternoon and knew a group of women who wanted to learn to play as well. Was I interested in teaching them? I immediately said yes.
On my birthday, 2015, my friend arrived at my home with three other women. One was a mutual acquaintance and neighbor, but the other two were strangers. Yet they arrived bearing birthday gifts! Their graciousness and enthusiasm over learning mahjongg was endearing. At the end of the two hours, during which time I went over the basics of the game and we played an open hand, I felt like I had known these women my entire life. We quickly agreed to meet the following week, and before long, we had added weekly games to our calendar. We created a group text chain and appointed ourselves the “Mahjesties.” To date, the Mahjesties has eight players and are some of the best people I know.
I was now devoting two days a week to mahjongg with two wonderful groups of women. Growing up, my mother spent every Wednesday playing canasta with her girlfriends. I had poked fun at the fact that a woman in her forties/fifties was playing a game I thought was reserved for women in their retirement years, but now I was doing the exact same thing. I now understood why my mother cherished that time. Like me, those women became her sisters. They have supported each other through life’s ups and downs and are still her closest friends to this day.
When Covid hit, our weekly games stopped. I missed our get-togethers, and while we talked regularly from our separate homes, it wasn’t quite the same. I realized in that long period of quarantining just how much these women meant to me.
It’s been over ten years since I first sat down to learn the game of mahjongg. My friends and I have all gotten older. Our kids have moved out of the house, many of us have gone back to work, some of us have moved, and since Covid, we don’t have as much time to play anymore. Yet when we do, we feel that bond that started years ago around a table covered in tiles, and we know that no matter how much time passes, we will remain lifelong friends.