This story is about a ninety-six-year-old woman. I promise, however, it is not one of those heart-warming, tear-inducing tales of sweetness and light, of life gone by and now only the basis for retrospective adulation. No, this nonagenarian is still tough-minded and forceful, and can only be overcome by her opponents with intelligence, patience and what she would doubtless declare to be a lot of luck.
Rose Galfand is a Scrabble fanatic. She has rendered opponents miserable over a period longer than most people live. This woman, who never attended college, and studied shorthand as the high-point of her academic career, knows every letter of the Greek, Egyptian and Hebrew alphabets. She knows the monetary units of Latvia and Cambodia, and the spelling of every word that starts with “Q” and does not contain a “U.”
“Qat,” she explains, when questioned, “is the mild narcotic chewed by the male inhabitants of Yemen.”
Rose was not expected to live into the twenty-first century. In fact, persistent tuberculosis kept her bedridden for years in her late teens and provided an anxious drumbeat for her family throughout the 1930’s, when additional depressing circumstances were neither needed nor deserved.
While she was ill, an aspiring librarian named Sidney visited nearly every day. Rose initially referred to him as “The Nebish,” a word that hardly requires translation – it is not a compliment. He came to sit by her bed.
“Go away,” she said.
“No, honey-bun,” he replied.
“You’re bothering me,” she said.
“But I adore you, dearest,” he said, not the least bit discouraged.
He reached for her hand. She pulled it away.
“Please leave me alone,” she said.
Over many months, Sidney’s sheer persistence wore away her defenses. When they were married, the ceremony took place in the bedroom. Rose’s mother cried throughout the ceremony, perhaps for joy, but perhaps also for concern that her daughter would not survive. Sidney’s parents were livid, certain that their son was foolishly falling into a hopeless situation.
Defying the predictions of her doctors, Rose survived; she emerged from bed several months after the wedding. She found work as a secretary and, eventually, raised two daughters. She ran her household while Sidney rose up in the hierarchy of Philadelphia’s library system. Since money was never abundant, Rose decorated their home with art and crafts she had made herself. With Sidney’s dutiful help, she created beautiful gardens filled, appropriately, with rose bushes. As they progressed through life together, Rose came to appreciate the gift of Sidney’s love; yet, she never failed to roll her eyes at Sidney’s endearments, even while she luxuriated in them.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “let me rub your back.”
“If you want to,” she said, moving closer.
“Darling, can I make you some tea?” he asked.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said.
Decades before the evolution of “the sensitive male,” Sidney set an insurmountable standard for husbands. He died after sixty years of marriage. Rose mourned for her husband and it would have been understandable if she had faltered. But Rose carries on, full of “piss and vinegar,” to quote one of her favorite phrases. Though she has other interests, she has made a virtual religion of conservative, defensive-minded Scrabble. Accordingly, she pronounces principles that may as well be set on a tablet and carried down from a mountaintop.
“Never get stuck with a V or a C,” she instructs. “Always block the triple word spaces. Don’t squander an H or an F.”
When you play against Rose, she gums up the board with so many little words that it is nearly impossible to attach anything. If you take more than a moment to think, she is apt to drum her fingers and declare, forlornly: “You’re wearing me out.”
Rose is gracious in victory, not so much in defeat. “You had all the good letters,” she will note. “You really know how to pick.”
Rose is not apt to dwell on her longevity or to seek profound answers to the mystery of the meaning of life. “Life is like a Scrabble game,” she maintains. “You either get good letters or you don’t. Either way, you have to play them intelligently. And, if you happen to pick up an S, which I hardly ever do, don’t waste it.”