When the last child leaves for college, most parents consider getting a pet, traveling, or having another child. My mom and dad played backgammon every day after I moved to college. My parents had replaced me with a board game. They’d tell me about the crazy battles they had after dinner, who had won, and what their strategy was for the next game. The backgammon war ended after they surreptitiously purchased a stack of strategy books and started staying up half the night, one on either side of the bed, improving their own game. My mother eventually refused to play with my father. She grew so frustrated with his knack for strategy, which she insisted was blind luck, that she would end up throwing the pieces across the room and tearing at her own hair (though my mother is normally a fairly low-key, even-tempered person, none of this is an exaggeration).
My first blog post for Father’s Day has me reminiscing about how board games, card games, and puzzles have made me closer with both of my parents. It’s not an experience that everyone grows up with; some families are “game families,” some aren’t (it is never too late to start, by the way). But I count myself lucky having spent hours with my parents playing Scrabble (if it was my mother’s turn to pick), Hearts (if it was my father’s), Gin Rummy (if it was mine), and Mexican Train dominoes (if a consensus could not be reached). But in hindsight, it wasn’t the content of the game that mattered most.
The feeling you get from playing a game with those you love is different for everyone. For me, it’s a mix of nostalgia and surrender; you’re engaging in an activity that is recognized by all the players as low-stakes rest and relaxation, barring the heated arguments over whether “mm” is a word. In my experience, it’s those arguments that I remember most fondly. I suspect that this was the case with my parents’ year of backgammon as well. Since both of them were recently retired and were finally spared my ill-advised teenage antics, that first year was just as much of a transition period for them as it was for me.
Now when I return home, I’ve found playing games is the best way to reconnect with my parents. Sitting down and playing a game helps us reacquaint ourselves with each other in a way that ordinary conversation can’t. Stepping through the doorframe of my parents’ new house after they’d just sold my childhood home, I felt like I’d suddenly become a different person, a stranger in my own house, a person who might be expected to pick up checks or discuss politics. It was only after sitting down to a card game with my parents and seeing old rivalries ignited that I discovered time had passed, but little had changed.
If you’re looking to rekindle an old tradition with your dad or start a new one, a board game has the potential to unlock aspects of your relationship that you haven’t accessed in years. For Father’s Day last year, I took my Dad to my favorite bar in Boston, and I picked up the check. Now, when I return home, I play backgammon with him—because no one else will.