What Mom Taught Me about Scrabble® — and about Life

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Mom — Eileen Clary LaBate

I played Scrabble® with my two grown daughters and my wife a while back. As I did so, I thought of another woman in my life — my mom — the woman who taught me to play the game in the first place. Mom passed away about ten years ago at the age of 80, and as I surveyed my Scrabble® letters and tried to form words, I recalled three major lessons that Mom taught me about Scrabble® — and about life.

First, she taught me to always pay special attention to the letter “s.” “You can make lots of words with that letter,” she said, “but you can make even more words and more points,” she added, “if you always use the letter ‘s’ to make a plural word.” And as I watched Mom play over the years, I realized what she meant.

Rather than use that letter in the midst of a five-letter word like “boast,” Mom always tried to make a four-letter word like “boat” instead. Then, she would make her four-letter word plural and attach it to someone else’s word, maybe turning “tar” into “star,” so she could get points for both words.

As I thought about that particular technique, I realized that Mom always emphasized the plural form in others phases of her life, as well. For example, she didn’t just buy one box of Girl Scout cookies for herself. No, she bought multiple boxes and shared them with all of her children. Rather than invite one grandchild to color with her, she invited all of them to share the crayons and the coloring books. And when Mom hosted her Friday-night Scrabble® games, she didn’t want one-on-one time with just one sister; she invited all of them to come and play. Mom knew and understood the value of sharing and the truth behind the Bible verse that says “two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

Regarding Scrabble®, Mom also showed me the significance of using the colored squares for double- and triple-letter scores and double- and triple-word scores. She viewed these squares scattered throughout the board as opportunities to make an ordinary word special. For instance, if Mom got the letter “x” (worth eight points) early in the game, she wouldn’t use it immediately in a random location to make a simple word like “ax” or “ox.” Instead, Mom would wait. She’d hold on to that letter until she could place it on a colored square and get 16 or 24 points for the letter and, if possible, double or triple value for a longer word like “relax” or “excite.”

When I was younger, I didn’t possess such patience. I wanted to use my high-value letters quickly and take the lead in the early rounds. Only after I watched Mom overtake me later in the game did I see the wisdom of waiting for the right opportunity.

Mom showed similar patience in her life outside Scrabble®. When she graduated from high school in 1945, she found a good job working as an operator for the telephone company, and she could have had a long and successful career there had she chosen to stay in the workplace. Once again, though, Mom saw greater opportunities available elsewhere. When she married my dad in 1949 and gave birth to their first child a year later, she decided to give up her job and raise her family. From 1950 to 1963, Mom stayed at home to nurture my five sisters and me, and she definitely would have stayed home even longer, but Peggy’s death changed everything.

Peggy was my youngest sister, a special gift to our family, born just a few days after Christmas in 1958. Peggy was, indeed, special in many ways. She was born with multiple physical problems, and she couldn’t speak or move like a normal child. Yet, with Mom’s extra love and attention, Peggy lit up our home with her smile and her exuberance. She never learned to properly pronounce my name, but she excitedly said “Eyah” whenever she saw me. And though Peggy struggled to stand on her own and walk, she moved all of us with her courage and her determination. My mom’s greatest accomplishment was taking care of Peggy during the too-short, four-and-a-half years of her life.

Finally, Mom’s third Scrabble® lesson concerned the seven letters in front of her. Mom knew if she had a bad combination of letters — perhaps too many vowels or too many consonants — that the rules permitted her to exchange some or all of her letters if she were willing to lose a turn.

Personally, I was never willing to lose a turn, and I was always stubborn enough to think that I could make a word, any word. I preferred two points for the word “at” or “it” because I was unwilling to take zero points and have to admit that I couldn’t come up with something. Mom knew better. Typically, too, Mom would find a 20-point word with her new letters while I was still stuck making two-point words with my old letters.

Obviously, Mom saw the benefit of starting over, and that’s exactly what she did after Peggy’s death. When school started the following autumn, we kids were in grades two, four, six, seven, and eight respectively, and Mom knew she couldn’t stay home alone. She found the house too empty and Peggy’s absence too depressing. So Mom went back to her old job as a telephone operator, and she also began to volunteer at church, at the hospital, and in the community. She used her wages to help all of her kids go to college, and she used her time to help others. She even began taking college courses herself once all of her children had graduated.

Looking back on Mom’s life, I remember a woman who absolutely loved her husband, Pete, her six children, and her nine grandchildren. She also loved Scrabble®. And when I recall the many times I played the game with her, I am so grateful that she taught me the value of sharing, the wisdom of waiting for the right opportunity, and the benefit of starting over.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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