When I was born, my parents – a writer and artist in the far south-east of Eastern Europe – lived in a dorm that was in no way equipped for a baby. I was a terribly light sleeper and my poor parents had to find something they could quietly do so as not to disturb my rare moments of quiet.
So they bought a Scrabble and played by candlelight, either to “keep it romantic” or because they didn’t have a desk lamp. My mother says she doesn’t remember any, but hurries to add that this is the reason for the wax stains on the little canvas pouch where the letter tiles belong. This random purchase of a board game would mark the start of a tournament that has been going on for nearly three decades, spanning two generations, and having many friends as guest players at our table.
Growing up at the table
I don’t remember when I first played a game Scrabblebut I was sure I was too young to know good words and that my dad kicked my ass thoroughly. If I scoured the stacks of sheet music from the late 90s really carefully I could probably find the exact date, but these days these are sealed and archived like museum pieces. It turns out that the glue that holds a notepad together will fail after a few decades. What was once a meticulously managed display board has dissolved into a pile of pages with numbers and scribbles on the edge.
When my little sister was finally old enough to spell, we started including her in our games. I remember getting extremely frustrated as only a teenager can be when it took too long to write a short, simple word and inevitably lost anyway.
We are both in our 20s now and live far away from home and in different countries, so it is always a pleasure when we sit back at the dining table in our childhood apartment and play with our mother. Dad rarely gets around these days, either to show mercy and let one of us win, or because he’s afraid his daughters will finally beat him. Either way, it’s a winning strategy as he was promoted to arbitrator and arbitrator instead.
Play in quarantine
In March of last year, like many others in the world, we all ended up together at home and in quarantine. On the first evening of Bulgaria’s first lockdown, I wrote the words “Coronavirus tournament” next to the date in the match report notebook because this strange new reality had to be taken into account in my notes – just as I had done for games played on birthdays, Holidays and exceptionally long nights. It felt important to name our lockdown games, like in our house I could forget the circumstances that kept us inside and instead focus on making sure we were all home and time together.
My family is a Scrabble Family, like other families are road trip families or Christmas card picture families, or We actually use words to express our feelings Familys. When my father saw us setting the table that evening and decided to attend for the first time in ages, I took all four chairs around the table to give myself the necessary assurance that we would manage this time together , and that it would be kind of ok. I don’t think anyone ever said anything about this, but the camaraderie of that first coronavirus tournament game was enough.
At the time, I had expected that, in the worst case, it would all take a few months. A year later, and just as we were all recovering from our own encounters with the virus, we celebrated. My sister had submitted her bachelor thesis from quarantine, so we celebrated the occasion with another part of the coronavirus tournament.
Playing together over the last year has become a kind of ritual or group meditation. Whenever one of us sits down at the table, a series of traditions begins that are comforting in their persistence: the board of directors is always facing my sister, while the rest of us have to deal with looking at it sideways; we each draw a letter to determine the order in which we play; I always take the notes; the winner is always whoever puts the game down at the end. The losers have the satisfaction that they put away all 100 tiles so that the winner doesn’t get too excited.
Last year has shown me more than ever how down-to-earth it is to have a green board with firm rules to return to, and it’s no surprise that the comfort of our game has at least crept into every single member of my family once, one way or the other.
Words upon words
We’ve never talked about the meaning of our endless game, but I know it means the same thing to everyone else in my family. We keep coming back to those perfect squares branching out into words in all directions. They are a kind of visual metaphor in our respective art, and I think that speaks for a common understanding. Spending time with the board, the tiles and the people at the table is a language of love. It’s an expression of care and togetherness that we then want to share with the outside world – either through the art we create or through a simple invitation to play.
To someone who has never played like us Scrabble can seem like a game of cluttering the dictionary, strategizing to get the most points, and outsmarting your friends. In reality, dealing with loved ones in words will always lead to more. In every single game I’ve played, my table mates and I have discovered a narrative where there shouldn’t be one and we laugh when words intersect in ways that seem to connect them.
A short film by my sister Iva.
Nobody ever remembers the stories found after the game is put down. Each game is a one night only performance; an unrepeatable story in which my family is both the storyteller and the audience. When the curtain falls, the details are forgotten and we only have the memory of another night of play.
Mechanically, Scrabble is not a collaborative storytelling game, but if played right, a story is ultimately inevitable when people and words are involved.