December 11, 2005

China, Cuba, and Britain Invade Indiana: A Very Bella Thanksgiving

Not that you care, but we are planning a really fun Rossa Family Chicago Christmas this year. (Yeah, Rossa is not my real last name, but get over it. The fame and attention that would surely come my way if I revealed my true identity here would stifle my sensitive genius.)

For the first time, my parents will be somewhere other than the family farm in Indiana for Christmas. They've finally smartened up and decided to migrate south like all the other bluehairs, and forego the frozen, bleak Midwestern winter for a warm, sunny, beachy climate.

So, for the first time, we're going to have a Chicago Christmas! My brother J. and his wife H. (and hopefully others) will come up from Indiana for a fabulous Christmas Eve and Day, for which we have many delights planned.

We sort of considered Thanksgiving a dry run for all this family togetherness, and it went pretty okay. Mostly what I remember (due to that sleep-inducing chemical in turkey, and maybe all that wine I drank) is the card games we played. It was fun, but it got a little competitive once the newbies got the hang of it.

J.'s wife H. is a recent arrival from China, and besides having to learn more English, driving skills, and ways to put up with my brother's crap, she was also faced with the task of learning "Whammy," the often intense and competitive game that allows all of our long-suppressed resentments and grudges to bubble forth to the surface.

It can get a little dicey when you're dealing with the international contingent of players that constitutes our family table, as well. Last holiday, my brother A.'s significant other R., who is from Cuba, learned in a big hurry that smack-talking and the psyching out of other players is the surest way to hear that satisfying jingle of quarters in your pocket once the table has been cleared of losers. His favorite insult was taunting those who had lost all their money and were coasting on their "free ride" by saying "My money sounds like this," while clinking his coins together, followed by "...and your money sounds like this," while making an empty whispering noise.

This year's new initiate learned the same strategy with surprising swiftness. Once H. learned about the confidence-rattling comments one can make when another player is making a big decision (draw from the deck or the discard pile, for example), her interjections became a marvelous addition to each round. "Think about it," she would say in her soft, unassuming voice, as someone's hand lingered in that no-man's land between the two stacks of cards. "Think about it."

At one point, after I'd won a game, I found myself across the table from only H. and R., who both seemed eager to wipe me out of the running. I may have done damage to the delicate state of international relations when I accused them of colluding in a Communist Conspiracy. China and Cuba, two nations you don't want ganging up on you as you try to play a decent hand of cards while stuffing your pasty face with Mom's pecan pie and trying to tune out the inane sports chatter coming over the wall from the living room. Crafty bastards.

Then there was my English friend J., who was (un)lucky enough to come along for the ride from Chicago to Indiana. He seemed comforted by my assurances that his presence the celebration of an American Thanksgiving was in no way perceived as an admission of defeat by the British Empire, but he still got a little testy when the Whammy games got hot and frantic.

I pretended to be cool and detached from the whole game until the wine kicked in, and I realized how much I needed all those shiny quarters for laundry once I got home. As my stockpile of money diminished, my belligerence rose, and I started accusing J. of peeking at my cards and using shiny surfaces to steal glimpses of my hands. At one point he lost on a big risk, and I taunted him: "What good does your Ph.D. do you now, huh?" He responded with another, better-calculated risk, which knocked me out of the game altogether. He may or may not have found it funny a short time later when he was removed from active play as well, and I hummed "Rule, Britannia" under my breath.

Maybe this year we should leave the deck of cards at home.

No comments: