For the past hour, my husband has been sitting in our spare room, squinting at a big screen TV and speaking urgently into a headset, as if his life, and maybe mine, depended on it.
Picture Tom Hanks in “Apollo 13” reporting to mission control, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Papa Mark (as he is known to our grandkids and a growing number of family, friends and readers of my column) is retired from a storied (pun intended) career as a newspaper editor.
He now finds other ways to occupy his time: Playing his bass. Watching HGTV. Looking for his lost keys. But nothing beats what he’s doing now.
Why? Because he loves it. And he’s not nagging me to find his lost keys. And best of all, he is making a little boy, who is 500 long miles away, very happy.
Randy is 7, the first of our six grandchildren. He is smart, sweet and good. (Yes, I’m his nana.) He has lots of interests and lots of people to share them with including his brother Wiley who’s 5, and sister Eleanor, 3.
But he really likes playing a video game with Papa Mark.
When we go to California, they sit side by side in Randy’s room, hunched over video controllers, with Wiley hanging on Papa Mark’s neck and Elle sitting in his lap telling him what to do.
I wish you could see them.
Papa Mark also plays that game with Henry and Charlotte, who are 6. He does other things with the younger ones: Legos with Wiley. Pretty Ponies with Elle. And he sings to 1-year-old Archer to watch him dance.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to visit as often as we’d like. So when we’re home in Las Vegas, a world apart, they play the game long distance, online.
I can hear him now, talking to Randy through a headset. I took him coffee and whispered into the headset: “Hey, my darlin’!”
“Hey, Nana!” Randy’s sweet voice replied, “I miss you!”
I love that game. I love how it connects my husband with our grandchildren. And gives me a chance to hear I’m missed.
In fact, I love it almost as much as I love checkers.
Believe it or not, when I was Randy’s age, there were no video games. TV was a black and white, 16-inch screen that played “Lassie,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Howdy Doody Show.”
At least, that all I watched. But when I visited my grandparents, every night before bed, we’d read or tell a story. Then we’d play a game or two of checkers.
My dad’s mother would let me win. She was fun. (My mother’s mother didn’t play checkers. She taught me to play Rook and how to cheat without getting caught.)
But my grandfathers took checkers seriously, and insisted that I did, too. So I did. I took losing very seriously. I never beat them. But I learned, win or lose, you always play to win.
My dad’s dad died undefeated when I was 12. I was in college the last time my mother’s dad, also undefeated, challenged me to a game. I watched his hands shake as he set up the board.
We played for half an hour, studying each move. And then, by some miracle, I won. We stared at each other in disbelief. Finally, he burst out laughing and grabbed the phone.
“Claude,” he said to a neighbor he often played and loved to beat, “the college girl’s here. Come play her some checkers.”
I had never felt so proud.
Playing games with a child is a gift for young and old. Any game will do, in the flesh or online. All that matters is the connection, the lovely sense of belonging and the memory that will linger long beyond the final move.
I read and tell stories with my grandbabes. But they’re growing up so fast. Are they old enough to play checkers? I’m certainly old enough to teach them.
Next time we visit, I’m taking a checker board. Win or lose, we’ll all be winners. Maybe I’ll even teach them to play Rook.