jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Recreating My Childhood, One Board Game At a Time

Pile of old games

All this could be yours… for a dollar
August 2015

I’ve been recreating my childhood one board game at a time. Or actually, not my whole entire childhood. Were I to try to recreate my whole entire childhood I’d need frozen TV dinners, 24-hour-a-day television, SPF 6 Coppertone sunscreen applied once a day (but only at the beach), canned vegetables, iceberg lettuce, and Wonder Bread. Also benign neglect, but that goes without saying.

And it was a fine enough childhood. Nothing will make you more likely to become an obsessive reader than watching every single Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and Dating Game rerun that exists. That’s a fact. I read The Outsiders three times in one weekend to escape the television in my house. Also because of Ponyboy. (Stay gold.)

But now my husband and I have been known to fake-enthusiastically ask, in the middle of a sushi dinner for six, “Hey, do you remember when you were five and your parents took you to eat sushi?” And then the other one of us will add, “And Udon noodles, and shrimp shumai!”

“Right, good times!”

Because it never happened. We apply this to all sorts of things:

“Do you remember when your parents brought you to the organic farm to pick your own blueberries for $6.99 a pint?”

“Do you remember when your parents bought you your first pair of Nikes… for kindergarten?”

“Do you remember how your parents bought you ice cream cones and then sat and watched the sunset with you?” (That one we said just last night.)

“Do you remember how your parents taught you how to sew/play piano/kayak?”

Because the answer is of course, no. No, no, no. I don’t remember. Because it never happened. Frozen meals, remember?

But each summer when I was a kid for one week my family would head to Cape Cod, to a little gray-shingled cottage for six with no phone or television (or my severely retarded brother.) We would ride bikes, steal firewood to build fires in the fireplace (out of season plus un-winterized), bunk up together and eat loads of canned clam chowder (old habits die hard.)

We’d also play board games.

And in our regular, everyday mayhem we called life we were not a game-playing family. We were a family with illness and disability. We were a family who worked hard. At school, at work, at surviving. At watching television, apparently.

But for our one week of vacation in our little cottage we would play games. We played Monopoly (which I still sort of hate), Probe (hangman with cards), Yahtzee (do you live under a rock? It’s Yahtzee!), Boggle, Life, Battleship, King Oil and every card game known to man.

And over the last few years I’ve inadvertently begun collecting these games for our kids. Not just any version, mind you, but the oldest, mildewed, old-school version anyone is willing to dig up from their basement and stick a 25 cent sticker on. I’ve found everything but King Oil, actually. Some date from the 60’s. The Probe game I found last week was from 1974. I think it may be the exact edition we’d cart to Cape Cod every year with us.

At first it seemed unintentional, coincidental, this collecting of familiar, old, family games. Who doesn’t want to occupy their kids with hours of Yahtzee, especially when they themselves played it once upon a time? I mean, I already know the rules. These game pieces are etched into my memory.

Old game of Probe spelling the word RAID

Okay, the original word he played may have been”REID”… which was illegal
August 2015

Over the past few weeks, and most especially with the acquisition of the fairly obscure game of Probe, I think I’m trying to do more than simply occupy my kids with good, clean, family game night. With each new, musty game I’m reaching back to that girl who loved her week in Cape Cod, the week less-fettered with stress and illness and the pressures of school friends.

I’m telling her that a tow-headed kid filled with curiosity and healthy food can sit face-to-face with his or her mom and play a really fun game, not just one day, but any day. I’m reaching back to little Jennie and saying, “Here, meet these kids. They’re super fun and healthy and for the most part, comfortable in their skin. And you are a part of their lives now. This is your life now.”

We can’t take back our childhood. And except to ease the pain of my siblings and parents, for the most part, I wouldn’t change mine. Just tonight my husband looked at me and said about one of our sons, “His whole shtick would work so much better if he were poor and living in the slums of London. He’d grow up to be David Bowie!”

Yes, we even wonder sometimes if we’re scrubbing the resilience and moxie out of our kids with these days of parental attention and healthy living. I nodded in agreement to my husband’s Bowie-observation but added, “All in good time.”

Because time has also taught me that a parent can’t protect their kids from hardships, no matter how caring and vigilant, no matter how much high-end sushi we give them.

It is days of wanting and needing and not receiving that probably gave me some of my greatest strength anyway. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without witnessing the struggles of those I loved, without loving them so much in my own visceral, musty, mildewed way.

No, giving my kids these (by all accounts) halcyon days of organic foods, SPF 50 (which probably causes cancer, by the way), unlimited beach time and yes, board games, won’t protect them from the really big stuff that will come their way. None of this will. In my own way I guess I’m just reaching back in time, into their childhoods as well as mine, and straightening a shelf a bit, holding them to my chest, taking a mental Polaroid, pulling the quintuple-your-first-guess card.

It’s just the smallest bit of very good which perhaps means the most.

Kids in silhouette at sunset

Sunset ice cream
August 2015

(And because I’m really curious… what was your childhood board game go-to? I’ve gotta know if we’re missing something.)

26 comments on “Recreating My Childhood, One Board Game At a Time

  1. Cynthia Novotny
    August 17, 2015

    My grandmother showed me how to play solitaire. No family game night, neighborhood kids played Life, Jacks and Chinese jump rope. I remember playing Battleship with my son. We only watched TV Sunday afternoons and there were only 3 channels. Gosh, I sound old. We give our kids the childhood we never had. I gave my son museums and the library, something I Craved in childhood and still love today. Good parenting is hard, you seem to have been blessed. Love your colum and how fluid the words flow.

    • jgroeber
      August 28, 2015

      Yes! Chinese jump rope. I’d forgotten that. (May have to look it up online…) and we did just buy a vintage 1985 game of Battleship. They don’t seem interested in Solitaire yet though. Perhaps it’s a teenage-angst thing? And thank you for those kind and thoughtful words. We really do try to give our children the childhood we never had.

  2. Ann St. Vincent
    August 17, 2015

    I love this, Jen. I just came back from a two week vacation with my son and some extended family members and we played Monopoly among other games. Hearing my Mom say to her husband, “Oh, honey listen, I got $25 for my *services*” was totally worth it. My son was the banker and did a bang up job.

    One of the games I introduced him to when he was little was Uno, because it was really each for him and he also learned that if he was going to dish out the +4 card he had to be willing to take it as well. It was a great lesson.

    • jgroeber
      August 28, 2015

      We’ve been playing Skipbo, but we may have to start Uno. And the richness of your Mom’s services! Ha! My mom cheats against my kids in Monopoly like crazy. I caught her two weeks ago (my nieces warned me that she would!) Thank you so much for reading and for sharing the games.

  3. lafriday
    August 17, 2015

    Childhood favorites were Scrabble, Password, and Go to the Head of the Class (probably the reason I am good at Jeopardy). We also played Carrom and Tripoley (neither of which I remember much about). And holiday gatherings usually involved a rousing game of charades. My (now grown) daughter and I love charades, Trivial Pursuit, Apples to Apples, Scrabble (of course), and our favorite: Cranium (a little bit of everything rolled into one). I still have the original Scrabble board that my mom owned when I was a kid as well as the Deluxe Edition that she purchased years ago. Does that make me a Scrabble hoarder, or like you, fiercely loyal to lovely childhood memories? Thanks for the lovely nudge of recollection.

    • jgroeber
      August 28, 2015

      Do you remember Upwords? It was like 3d Scrabble. I’d love to find that for my kids! And we’re on the verge of Cranium soon, I hope. Oh, thank you for sharing these delightful memories (and suggestions.)

  4. elizabethjones2411
    August 17, 2015

    I love this post! I’ve sat many nights contemplating these same things. Scrabble and yahtzee were two of my favorites as a kid. It’s sad but as my kids get older, (my son going into freshman year of high school and my daughter into 6th), we don’t seem to have as much time. Both kids are active in sports. I think reading this is making me want to reconstitute a game night into our schedule!

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Oh, reading your comment has made me really glad we’ve pushed games onto our unsuspecting kids. Battleship and Connect Four saved the game today. Yesterday was Life and a local version of Monopoly. With my oldest headed into 2nd grade (and his first season of travel soccer this fall) I feel these days slipping by. Perhaps we get them back when they return home for holidays and vacations when they’re grown up? (Sigh.)
      Thanks so much for the comment.

  5. Elizabeth Voss
    August 18, 2015

    Beautiful post. In my world we suckled on the most loving of benign neglect (though certainly not at the breast, because that would have called for some serious parental involvement). My four siblings and I played many of the games you mentioned. Our favorites were Parcheesi and Clue (board games) and crazy 8s and bourre’ (card games – bourre’ is cajun poker). We only had three television stations, so TV was not our mainstay, although we certainly watched. Most of our time was spent outside though. Sweating in the south Louisiana heat and humidity, swimming whenever possible, playing freeze-tag, swinging statues and kick the can (a variation of hide and seek). We built forts, made up songs, and lived in our imaginations. We weren’t missed or looked for unless we failed to show up for supper. Doing pretty much whatever we wanted (and could get to by foot or by bicycle) until nightfall was fair game. Night-time brought catching “lightening bugs” (fireflies) and more kick the can (in the dark, on the golf course). We also ran in the golf-course sprinklers until we were old enough to realize we smelled like sewage afterwards. Dear lord, it was the best of times, and if I am honest, the worst of times. My husband and I are also on the campaign to parent with laughs, and purposeful interaction. My kids don’t have nearly the freedom that I had. That’s both sad and a very good thing.

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Parcheesi! I’d forgotten that one. And Clue. Although my kids are so young still that one might be awhile yet.
      Your comment is a lovely post unto itself. That balance between neglect (benign or otherwise) and helicopter parenting. There must be a place in the middle. Because lousy things happen when you’re off with the neighborhood kids for hours. But wonderful things happen when you’re taught self-reliance. Hopefully having those siblings running by your side helped. I’m sort of counting on that for mine.
      Thanks for that awesome comment.

  6. kellylmckenzie
    August 18, 2015

    I’ve gpt one week left before my son returns to college. Have we played a board game this summer? NO! Horrors – how did we miss at least one family game night? I’ve got seven sleeps to correct this. Well perhaps five or six. He’s getting two wisdom teeth out this morning. Bring on the popsicles, the gin and the boardgames.

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Did you get the board games played? Now I can’t wait to know! Hope those teeth fell out of their own accord and the tooth fairy brought him college tuition for next year. Fingers crossed!!

  7. kellylmckenzie
    August 18, 2015

    Not sure if I’m duplicating my comment. Let’s pretend I’m not. I’ve got 7 sleeps before my son returns to college. Horrors – we’ve not had one family game night this summer. With him getting two wisdom teeth out this morning, I’m down to probably 5. Bring on the popsicles, gin and board games. Bless you for the gentle nudge.

  8. Robin
    August 18, 2015

    Life was one of our favorites. I just bought my four the original version from the 1960’s and they are obsessed. We also regularly play poker now, and did growing up. Every time we play, I am reminded of being on an island in NH in a rented, cold, cramped cabin in the summer after 5th grade. I spent the whole time playing penny poker with my dad and siblings.

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      The thing I like about the new Life that feels both credible and ridiculous is that they’ve added professional athlete, pop star and artist. And you get a lousy salary. Whereas in the old one, it was the teacher who had the lousy salary, as I recall ($6,000 to the doctor’s $20,000… how I remember this I don’t know.) But now sometimes you can sort of magically pull the very best salary, too. It would have given me hope to think an artist could ever make it big, I think. Ha!
      And as for penny poker, that sounds amazing. We did blackjack (I think?) but I can’t remember any of the rules. What does this say about my selective memory?!

  9. jackhasdementia
    August 18, 2015

    Hi jen,

    Love your article ‘s . They remind me as well as my life growing up. One game forgotten is Clue and Clue Jr. My sister and I used to play this after school. Now she was into Yatzee and I am into monopoly.

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Yahtzee and Monopoly were played by my kids this very weekend. But I keep thinking that they won’t get Clue yet. I may have to check out Clue Jr. though. Thanks for the tip! (And for the kind words.)

  10. pujagokarn161289
    August 19, 2015

    Battleship with my brother, snakes and ladders, carom or UNO with my family and Hide and Seek or Blindman’s Buff with the cousins. But one of the really fun things was these random parties which my mom used to host just for us kids, where she made us dress up for the occasion, decorated the house with streamers and lights, made fried snacks, amazing food and played party games with us. She even played Abba, Boney M and Jackson and made us dance to it.

    ‘Yes, we even wonder sometimes if we’re scrubbing the resilience and moxie out of our kids with these days of parental attention and healthy living.’ – loved this line! absolute brilliance!

    Very interesting read over all. Very nicely written.

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Thanks so much for your kind words.
      I love that vision of your Mom throwing such an amazing kid party. I have a friend who does that with party favor bags and specially shaped sandwiches, fresh-made lemonade. And they’re not even for a birthday! There’s something precious in that, isn’t there?
      Thanks for commenting.

      • pujagokarn161289
        August 31, 2015

        Ours weren’t for birthdays either. Although one such party WAS thrown for the birthday of my stuffed monkey, Sonali. It’s what you grow up to treasure when you learn about the resilience and moxie development causing situations in life. 🙂

  11. UpChuckingwords
    August 24, 2015

    We played Flinch which was handed down from my Mom from her Mom. Nice reflective post….your kids will be filled with lots of moxie because you are giving them an excellent strong foundation to stand firm on:)

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Flinch? I’m off to google that one.
      And hopefully I’ve inadvertently performed just enough benign neglect that they’ll be strong enough. It helps to have so many so close in age. 😉

  12. plainspokenmama
    August 24, 2015

    You’ve gotta add Sorry! to your board game repertoire. My sister and I played countless hours, and we always ended up in massive fights. I was particularly evil in my Sorry strategies. Even with the fights, it was our hands-down favorite game. Now that I’m grown up and have my own family, I love the game for different reasons. It helps my son figure out that you can play a game, be competitive, lose and still have fun. And I’m secretly proud of my ability to do the same thing now that I’m thirty-plus years older!

    • jgroeber
      August 30, 2015

      Ha! Sorry!… I played that with my son at the end of the school year and I couldn’t remember how to strategize for it. So it felt sort of boring. I think we may have been missing some of the rules. Now I know I have to give that one a retry. Because I really did like it as a kid, too.
      Thanks for the comment and the reminder.

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This entry was posted on August 17, 2015 by in Memory, The Children and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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