Only now do four Portland women know they’d taken for granted something created long ago. Losing it for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic allowed them to discover that truth.
For 15 years they’ve been meeting twice a month to play mahjong. Invented in China in the 1800s, the game uses domino-like tiles with Chinese symbols and characters. Once a player gets the hang of it, the game is relatively simple. That leaves the women time to engage in trash talk — the gentle kind you’d expect when old friends gamble a few bucks over the course of four hours — while having fun and simply being with each other.
Then came the pandemic, which began closing down schools, offices, restaurants and all kinds of in-person entertainment. The twice-monthly mahjong game also fell victim to the insidious virus.
The players, who range from in age from 69 to 84, took the virus seriously. At their age they were considered high risk. If they became infected, they could get sick, or even die. At first, they thought the pause would be temporary. Then one month turned into another, and, finally, into more than a year. Oh, they kept in touch over the telephone, but it just wasn’t the same. Recently — all vaccinated — they reached out to each other and decided it was time to start again.
“I realize just why these friendships are so important,” said Peggie Irvine-Page, 81. “Isolation was disappointing and hard. It made me realize it is the little things that get a person through the tough times.”
The group rotates between members’ homes. The first game of 2021 took place at Maryann Bozigar’s place in northeast Portland. At 69, she describes herself as the baby of the group. The woman all arrived with their tiny, almost doll-size, purses where they carry the quarters they use to bet.
“We maybe spend $3 dollars during a session,” she said. “But over the year these quarters just move around from person to person.”
Bozigar said her mother, gone 11 years now, taught her how to play mahjong.
“We have a blast together,” she said. “A couple of these women are very funny. This group has been there through the good times and bad times we all have. We share stories about ourselves, our kids and our grandkids.”
Mary Beth Young, 77, said when she first started playing with the group she had to concentrate on the tiles and the score card, which looks intimidating — FF 111 222 333 is but one example — to the uninitiated.
“I was so exhausted at the end of the games that when I got home, I couldn’t even watch “Antiques Roadshow’ on TV,” she said. “It took that much energy. It’s easier now. It’s a bit of skill and a bit of luck. I build on the luck.”
By its very nature, she said, mahjong is, for the most part, a game for people with time on their hands. The women in this group are retired. Only one is married. The others have been single or widowed for years.
“No 30-year-old is going to play this,” Young said. “I didn’t. We were busy raising a family, trying to buy a home and working. Older women, where the family is gone, need something to fill the hours. My daughters are 51 and 55. They encourage me to be part of ‘Mahjong Day.’ They don’t want me on their doorstep.”
With the game halted, the friends kept in touch with each other on the phone and dropped off small gifts for each other — masked up and at a great distance — during Christmas. But it just wasn’t the same as gathering around a table. They understood the need to wait. Across the United States, nearly 600,000 people have died from COVID-19. The daily news, since reports of that first infection in 2020, has been grim.
“The virus reminded those of us at this mahjong table of our mortality,” Young said. “It’s our age. It’s unspoken. We all push it away, but it is there. This group will not go on forever. We all die. My life is moving on. At any funeral you cry for the loss of a friend, but also because you know you are next.”
Kathy Tweedy, who at 84 is the oldest member of the group, enjoys the routine, the date on the calendar, twice a month, that invigorates her spirit.
“It’s a positive afternoon,” she said. “Everyone has a different opinion about current events and other issues. But we speak our minds. Being at that table is a safe place to be ourselves.”
In the end, it is just a game, a simple game played twice a month around a table, four women laughing and talking and wagering a few quarters. But sometimes the simple moments in life are the best.
“Being back at the table is such a relief,” Tweedy said. “It’s like coming home again.”