My white-haired nana was the head of family. Her given name was Mabel, an offbeat, old-fashioned name popular in the 1890s. Like her name, Nana was a little bit old-fashioned, a rule follower, and a strict disciplinarian. My great aunt Elda and my great uncle Earl lived with her in the big home on Lehigh Street in Allentown. Nana loved to teach her great granddaughters all kinds of games including Parchesi, Monopoly, Clue and Crazy Eights, and Old Maid. Her favorite, however, was checkers. My nana was the checker champion, and no one ever beat her!
We always played in the kitchen. There was a built-in booth with chrome legs and trim to the table. The red seats were hard to take in the summer if you were wearing shorts and had to slide into the far end. You always felt like you were sticking to the seat! This is where the checker competitions would take place.
Nana would query, “What color?” and I would always answer “Black!” Nana knew what I would say, but she asked anyway. Once we started, there was no small talk. “Eyes on the board. Concentrate!” Nana would command. As hard as I tried, Nana always ended up getting “kinged” several times before I could make one lone player reach the final row of the board.
When I knew I was losing, I would always get up to greet anyone who walked into the kitchen. I skipped across the large white and black checkerboard floor in a way I could not make my checker skip across the gameboard. But Nana would say, “Sit down. The game is not finished yet.” Reluctantly, I would obey. I knew when I was whipped. Nana would say to me, “The next time it will be your turn to win.” But that never happened. Nana maintained her record. She would not ever play to just let her great granddaughter win, even if she was the first great granddaughter and born in the month of May like she was.
As I look back on it all, I think she did the right thing. Today kids get trophies and awards just for showing up. Nana taught me to keep trying, even when I lost each match. I improved, too, making it harder for her to win the game. She had to take longer pauses before moves, and I think that even she thought more than once that I was going to beat her. I think I learned how to stay with something and see it through. That has helped me have a thirty-eight year career in the classroom and write four books. Now, I am working on a fifth book and revising the first with the help of my co-authors. Maybe, in some way, I owe it all to my white-haired nana, the checker champion of Lehigh Street.