During this year’s pandemic, there would be no need for my husband and me to exchange Chanukah gifts. We didn’t need anything; we didn’t go anywhere. If truth be told, though, we make a “No gifts” pledge to each other every year. I keep my promise, but Andy always breaks his. It’s embarrassing to be caught empty-handed, but at least I am honest.
Surely, in 2020, lighting candles, frying latkes, and with any luck, singing holiday songs would be “dayenu.” (Oops, wrong holiday.) Continued good health and the promise of a vaccine would make it perfect. Did we really need something wrapped in a box to certify the holiday?
Apparently we did. Imagine my surprise, when once again, Andy reneged on our agreement. He gave me (us) the perfect present. Something we really did need.
A board game! Yes, an old-fashioned board game.
While the Chanukah candles flickered, we sat on the floor next to the fireplace and emptied the contents of the game box. “Ticket to Ride” has a board with colorful train tracks crisscrossing the United States and Canada. Destination cards assign the players’ journeys. Tiny train car cards match the track routes. The rainbow-colored locomotive cards don’t match anything. What about the 225 plastic train cars and five wooden markers? Confusing? The instruction booklet definitely was required reading.
As I tried to focus on reading the directions, I suddenly felt nostalgic for all the board games we used to play with our two kids. Candy Land is the first game I remember, probably followed by Chutes and Ladders. Looking back more than 30 years, the pawns and the spinner now feel like artifacts in a museum.
We spent evenings, weekends, and snow days moving the pieces on the Parcheesi or Sorry boards. In order to win, a player had to travel the board and be the first to arrive at the destination. It was so simple, yet it created so much joy and drama. I can hear the laughter and the groans — “Come on already, it’s your turn” and “It’s not fair” — as if it were yesterday. I can see the snacks and the hot chocolate with marshmallows as vividly as the discard piles and squares on the boards.
As the kids grew up, the games became more sophisticated. We started investing in houses and hotels on Ventnor Avenue and Park Place in Monopoly. The cash flowed in and out of our hands like the waves on the Jersey Shore.
And who wouldn’t love Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum, even if they were Clue murderers who committed crimes with lead pipes or candlesticks in the Billiard Room or the Conservatory? The rooms were Downton Abbey-ish. And those weapons? They were the size of thimbles and they were adorable.
In the game of Risk, conquering the world was great fun, as you rolled the dice, built alliance, and attacked your enemies with your “token” armies. Sometimes, Risk and Monopoly games took so long to play that the board remained untouched overnight until we could resume the next morning.
Who cared if you spent time in jail, or murdered someone, or led an army that had no business usurping other countries? No matter that the board had so much candy on it your teeth decayed just looking at the pictures. It wasn’t the evening news; it was all make-believe and pure entertainment. As a mom and a teacher, though, I knew there had to be more.
In the simplest games, a player needed luck to win. But as the games became increasingly complex, strategy became more important. You learned to take calculated risks and make decisions for a successful future.
As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Milton Bradley had in mind in 1860, when he released his first game, “The Checkered Game of Life.” According to the New England Historical Society, the player’s objective was simple: “To gain on his journey that which will make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress.” This secular element was entirely new to parlor games, which previously taught only religious morality lessons.
Either way — whether you were mastering colors and numbers as a preschooler or learning world geography and financial management as an older kid — you also were learning valuable life lessons.
For example, while you were assembling the board and waiting your turn to roll the dice, you learned patience. You learned to focus on a task and not get distracted. You learned how to win, and more importantly, how to lose and be a good sport. Last, but not least, you learned to clean up.
Perhaps the most important lesson was appreciating the sanctity of family time. Homework was done. Dishes were washed and laundry was folded. There was nothing to do except enjoy each other’s company.
So what do all these memories have to do with “Ticket to Ride,” the perfect Chanukah gift for an old married couple? Andy and I know how to count, and we know which direction is clockwise. We know how to share. Usually, but not always, we know how to clean up.
As soon as we unfolded the board, it was as if a voice cried out, “Hey, remember me? Remember when you weren’t attached to your electronic devices 24/7? When you lived life in three dimensions and not on your screen?” I was ashamed to say I couldn’t remember. I had forgotten what life was like untethered from my phone and the computer, from the news and my job. The quaint destination and train cards, the locomotive “wild” cards and the plastic train cars reminded me.
Ironically, my son told me he plays “Ticket to Ride” with his friends across the country — virtually! I suppose that’s a good way to stay connected when you can’t see anyone. As for me, I am grateful for my husband sitting next to me, as we embark on an old-fashioned train trip in an old-fashioned board game. There is nothing old-fashioned about treasuring this time together.
Who knows? Maybe once the pandemic ends, we’ll take a real train trip. For now, we are enjoying blocking each other’s routes from Helena to Little Rock or from Winnipeg to New Orleans, as we focus on reaching our own destinations. Duluth, Minnesota, here we come!