pitch perfect

on games and grieving

Some families play poker. Some families play bridge. Some families play Monopoly, or Scrabble, or Taboo, or what have you. But my family’s game is a card game called pitch.

If pitch doesn’t ring a bell, you might know it by the more descriptive but ultimately unwieldy name High, Low, Jack. And more likely, you haven’t heard of it at all—it’s not that common a game, and I’ve only encountered a few people outside my family who are familiar with it at all.

The rules of the game can be a bit complicated to explain, and they don’t matter here. What matters is that my grandparents loved pitch. Over the years, they played in multiple pitch leagues in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, not far from Providence. They loved it, and they were good at it—more often than not winning games (and sometimes money) against the other (mostly old) people they played against. And they passed that love of pitch on to my mom and her siblings, and eventually to me and my brother and my cousins.

There are many things I love about pitch. I love that it is the perfect combination of luck and skill. Sometimes the cards are in your favor, and sometimes they’re not, but there is nothing more satisfying than using years of practice and learned strategy to turn a handful of low cards into a winning hand, or at least a helping one. I love that it’s a team game, that you have to rely on your partner and hope they’ll be able to back you up when you make a risky bet—sometimes they can, and sometimes they can’t. I love that it moves fast but not too fast and that I can play it for hours on end without getting bored because every hand is different as the luck of the cards changes.

My family always used to joke that I was lucky, that I got lucky with cards, and I often did. But luck doesn’t last, and most things don’t last, and the last time I played pitch with my grandma was about three years ago, before she died. I didn’t know it would be the last time and then it had happened and we would never play cards together again. I don’t specifically remember the last time I played cards with my grandpa—sometime in 2009, before he got too sick to play.

For a long time pitch was something I kept to myself. It belonged to me and my family only. But after my grandparents died and I only got to play pitch once a year at Christmas, I decided I missed pitch and I wanted to play again. Last year on spring break with three of my friends, I taught them to play. I hadn’t taught anyone to play in a long time, and it took a little while for them to get the hang of the rules and the strategy. But they got it, and we played, and it was the best.

When we returned from spring break, I went to a game night with other friends and I taught a bunch of them to play too. This was nothing like how I used to play with my grandparents—here we were, nine or ten college students huddled on the floor of the Hope basement, surrounded by other people playing other games. And here I am, ten years old and thirteen and sixteen and eighteen, sitting at the dark wood table on Mendon Road, with my grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, brother and cousins, playing endless games with endless permutations and endless wins and losses.

After my grandma’s funeral, my aunt gave me and my cousins each one of her decks of cards. There was nothing special about them—just the standard red and blue Bicycle packs—but my grandma’s death had been fairly sudden and unexpected, and this gesture was what made it feel more real.

Writing about grief is hard. Grieving is hard. But this is about the after-grief, the end of the active grieving period when you’re not thinking about your loss all the time—instead it’s the occasional missing, the occasional tears. At my grandma’s funeral, we were asked to share memories of her, and I didn’t, because it was too soon and too hard to think of something profound to say about her death; nothing about it felt profound, it just felt awful. But three years later I can think about the little, less profound things: all the times my grandpa would end up spectacularly “in the hole” (losing more points than he won), just to keep the other team from winning. He was the kind of card player who always tried to shoot the moon in hearts—and who succeeded more often than anyone I’ve ever known. My grandma shuffling carefully, deliberately, passing the cards in and out over and over until my grandpa, impatient, said, “Don’t marry ‘em!”, an exchange that happened exactly the same way every time we played together. The way my cousin Tim takes the exact same risks, makes the same spectacularly gutsy, occasionally stupid bets my grandpa always used to make. All the times my grandma beat me, or all the times we were partners and, whether if we won or lost, it happened together.

My family didn’t play pitch again for a while after my grandma died, because it was impossible to play without feeling her absence, being too aware of her empty seat at the table. But eventually we did again, because not playing was harder than playing, and eventually the grief dissipated and it was a little easier. I don’t think about my grandparents every day anymore, because I guess that’s what happens with time. But I miss them and I miss them somehow a little less and a little more when I play pitch with my friends. I didn’t speak at my grandma’s funeral, but writing about her is something I know how to do, and it’s one way I have of honoring her and my grandpa. The other way is by playing pitch.