I’m not sure exactly how old I was, somewhere in that awkward adolescent period, when I received a Christmas gift that became more special over time. The gift came quietly. After we had unwrapped our gifts and settled into cookies and cocoa, I noticed a wooden box under the Christmas tree. My mother said “oh, that’s for you. It’s something your aunt found in Sita’s basement and thought you would like to have.” I crawled under the tree and retrieved this chess set. It wasn’t in the best of shape; it had a few cracked squares, a few broken bits, and the construction was crude, but this chess set became one of my favorite things. It also deepened the love I had for my grandmother.
Sita (my paternal grandmother) and I had always had a special bond. People said that I was her favorite grandchild. I won’t argue. I was the youngest child of her youngest child and we lived right next door to her until I was 10. I spent a lot of time with her while I was growing up, I had a Biblical name and in her eyes, I could do no wrong. When I was about 12, she suffered a stroke that left her with no short-term memory. She needed constant companionship, and I was often that companion. I spent a lot of time on weekends with her. I enjoyed those days and, as you might guess, I dreaded those days.
I understood the notion of service and duty but I didn’t look forward to it. Besides, being with a person with no short-term memory is difficult. We would talk but that was hard because she would forget the conversation as we were having it. We would watch TV but we couldn’t watch movies, dramas or anything with a plot. We watched variety shows, her favorite was “Hee Haw” and we watched cartoons. She had always seemed so serious so it was fun to see her laugh. We played a card game called Basada which appears to be the game Basra. At other times, she would nod off and I would do homework or work on models.
Now that I had this chess set, I could take it to her house. I was trying to learn to play better by reading a book of historic games. The book included the moves of these games along with some commentary. I would step through the game and try to understand the strategy. One day, after Sita fell asleep, I set up the board and began working my way through a game. After a while, Sita woke up and came into the dining room. She looked at the chess board and said “I know this game.” With an age-appropriate male attitude, I suggested that she probably was thinking of checkers.
She said “no, checkers, all men same. This game, men different” then she asked if I wanted to play with her. My first thought was how awful that could be. If she didn’t really remember how to play, there was no way I could teach her; I would have to explain the rules of chess to her every time it was her turn to move. So, continuing in my arrogance, I decided to test her. I asked her “do you remember how the men move?” She picked up a pawn and said “he moves slow.” OK, that’s not how I would have described it, but it was accurate.
I pointed to the rook and asked “what about him, the rook?” She said ‘he moves straight.” OK, now pointing to the knight, I asked again if she knew how it moved. She said: “crooked” and she drew an “L” in the air with her finger. I was surprised and I started to feel a little ashamed about testing her but I continued. I pointed to the bishop, and she seemed a little confused, I think she was also getting a little annoyed. She didn’t remember how the Bishop moved but she remembered that it had to stay on its color. Then, without my prompting, she picked up the king and the queen together.
She said “these are married.” I laughed a bit, thinking yes I guess they would be married. Then she said “in marriage, the man is important but the woman is strong” and she held the queen for me to see.
That made me think about her and how she had immigrated to this country from Syria when she was not much older than I was at that time. How her husband had died, leaving her with children as young as four to raise just as the Great Depression was about to begin. That this woman, with no marketable skills, a poor command of English and a limited understanding of the world around her managed to survive was impressive. That she had been able to provide for a family under those conditions was nothing short of remarkable. She was the picture of strength in my life.
We played chess. She remembered enough about the game to play without too many reminders and she managed to beat me on occasion. Playing with her made the chess set even more special and it was one more way we could pass the time without the constant reminder of her condition. The games would evoke memories from her childhood which she would share with me. Of course, she told the same stories over and over, but it didn’t matter. She remained in her role as grandmother; she told stories to pass along her knowledge and wisdom to her grandchild. During those games, she was taking care of me and the world was right again.