Hard Times

She was a big woman, broad in the beam. She would sit royally at the end of the table,straight up, impassive, surveying the scene, quietly goading other players into overbidding. I noticed that in a pinochle game, she consistently won trick after trick, piling up the points.

She would have made a great poker player.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother during those early Depression years. She was a smart, tough, soft-hearted woman with a sly sense of humor. She let my grandfather do the posturing and the roaring. But she controlled the purse strings. She knew exactly how much money we had left at any moment, what still had to be paid out, what had to be stretched.

She taught me how to play Papillon, the ancient card game that is easy to learn, yet so difficult to master. We would frequently sit at the kitchen table and play all evening long—-just the two of us. A few years later, I discovered that everybody else in America seemed to call the game Casino.

My grandmother had the ability to keep track of almost every card played in Papillon, so that when we came down to the last deal, she always had a good idea of what four cards I was holding. It was infuriating.

In playing a game of cards, she showed no mercy. She forced me to study the cards carefully and to do my best. She taught me something else, too. She would wiggle her finger in my face and speaking in her fractured French- Canadian accent, she would warn me, “Play smart, Byron. Play smart. But nevair cheat at cards. Nevair. Nevair.”

A good lesson for playing at cards—and life.

***

During those days, my grandfather made a good full- flavored home brew. Strictly for our own family and friends, his beer was a big hit at family dinners and pinochle parties.

However, with no steady job and with the Depression pushing us toward the bottom, he began a little local bootlegging to bring in some extra money. He would take advance orders and then deliver the finished product—a case or two here, a case or two there, mostly to industrial workers at the machine shops and warehouses in our neighborhood and down around the docks.

He cooked the malt and the hops and the other fixings in an old 10-gallon enamel kettle. Then he’d siphon the cooled wort into glass jugs, adding the yeast. In about a week, the product was ready for bottling.

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