PLAYING CARDS

     An early memory, hazy, emerges like the sun through morning fog. There is a small row-house, a tiny patio in front, and white-haired Pop-Pop shuffling the deck.
     “Ve’re going to play casino,” he said, with a European accent. “You vill be good at dis,” he assured me.
     I was focused, for some reason, on the letter “W” and why it was so difficult for some people to pronounce. My father, who came from the same general part of the world as Pop-Pop, could pronounce “W” but could not pronounce a “V.” He called Vietnam “Wietnam.” I digress.
     Traffic rolled along the street in front of us in a working-class section of Philadelphia. The roof of a huge warehouse dominated the view across the street for as far as the eye could see.
     Pop-Pop was kindly. He patiently wrote down the particular scoring and rules of casino. There were fourteen points to be won in each deck. There was some “building” of hands and some “trumping.” Basically, it was a sort of unambitious pinochle. Whenever my step-grandmother emerged from the house, Pop-Pop boasted of my prodigious abilities at the game.
     On reflection, I am aware that it is highly unlikely that my combination of cards was always better than my grandfather’s. However, from the ages of 5-7, I was the undefeated champion of our games.
     Death arrived abruptly for Pop-Pop. In an antiquated way, he simply went to bed one night and did not wake up. No illness, no hospital, no ICU. No one officially informed me – I eaves-dropped from my upstairs bedroom while my mother and aunts cried one morning, downstairs in the kitchen.
     What to make of this event? I was sad, but detached, at the time. My mother seemed grief-stricken enough for the whole family, and I felt it was best to just stay out of the way.
     But there is a lot to miss when someone who is totally, one-hundred-percent benevolent leaves your life. How many people does one encounter, including friends and closest relatives, with whom one never experiences a single, solitary disagreement or argument, or even difference of opinion?
     Pop-Pop was probably just a normal, nicer-than-average immigrant who managed to escape Europe during some preliminary horrors, so as to miss the main event that arose several years later. He ran a series of small food-stands and then, finally, a small restaurant. He never made more than a minimal living, but raised four children who loved him. One could say that he played the cards he was dealt. And, based upon the benevolence and fond memories he bestowed upon his children and grandchildren, he played them well.

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