I envy people who can make any of the following statements:
“I play Mah Jongg with my mother”
“I remember as a little kid hearing the clicking of the tiles.”
“The set we’re playing with belonged to my grandmother.”
Whether or not you grew up with your mother and/or grandmother playing Maj, largely depends on where your mother and grandmother grew up.
In the years during and after WWII, Mah Jongg is credited with helping build social networks among Jewish women throughout the United States.
So why didn’t my mother play Mah Jongg? No doubt the game was gaining hold in at least certain parts of Chicago, but in all likelihood bypassed my mother and grandmother. I wish there was an Ancestry.com for Mah Jongg because it would answer a lot of questions. When they moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, and for decades beyond, apparently Mah Jongg wasn’t in vogue, at least in my mom’s social circles.
The first time I even heard the term Mah Jongg was as a teenager while reading an Agatha Christie mystery. Some of the characters in the book were playing. I had no idea what it was, but it seemed like a very old and mysterious game–a game I was sure hadn’t been played by anyone I knew.
My mother’s game was Pan. At the height of her pan playing around the mid 1970’s, she was in either 2 or 3 weekly games, and substituted in another. While my mom’s Pan games were certainly weaved into the fabric of our lives, I never quite understood the allure–how much her afternoons of Pan meant to her. I do remember one time she sat me down and taught me the basics. I was probably about 15. I’m pretty sure I never played again, until a few months ago, when some of my Maj buddies needed a fill-in for their Pan game, and voila, 40-plus years later, there I was playing Pan. I felt that I was channeling my mother and that she would be proud of me, as I finally took up the game that was such a big part of her life.
Looking back, I’ll always regret not playing Pan with my mother.
Could it be that while growing up I subconsciously rejected Pan because I considered it ‘my mom’s game?’
My friend Cathy called me a few years back, and asked, “would you have any interest in learning Mah Jongg? I know someone who can teach us.” I said, “sure, why not?” Conversely, was I open to learning Mah Jongg because my mother didn’t play it, therefore no negative connotation was attached?
I’ll never really know the answer, however, once I was hooked on Maj, I so wished that my mom was still around so that I could share my excitement with her. Maybe I could have taught her Maj – she probably would have been a good player. How I wish we could have played together.
Mah Jongg taught me something that I couldn’t have known when I was a kid: most of us really are chips off the old block. When we’re young, many of us reject what our mothers do because it doesn’t seem cool at the time. Even into adulthood, some of us continue to look upon our mother’s activities with disdain.
I credit Mah Jongg with helping me to realize that I really am like my mother, and that’s a good thing! Be it Pan or Mah Jongg, it’s a passion, a pastime, a social network like no other. And if you can share this with your mother, or grandmother, it makes it that much more wonderful.
Since my mom passed away before I learned Maj, I never had the pleasure of sharing the game with her. And since she (and my grandmother) didn’t play, I don’t have any Maj memories of them. But I do know that when I play Maj, my mom is with me in spirit, because Pan was her Maj, and I know she’s happy.
I welcome your comments and any Maj memories you have of your mother or grandmother.