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The Card Game That Has Helped Me Develop New Friendships

It's a reminder that life comes full circle.

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playing canasta with friends image of cards on a green table
Jeff Elkins
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I was on my phone making plans with a friend. I hesitated before I blurted out the embarrassing truth.

“I can’t make it Wednesday. I’m playing canasta.”

I thought, have I turned into my grandmother? I hadn’t even become my mother yet! Grandma Alice had a weekly card game in her Jackson Heights apartment. I remember sleepovers there where I’d watch her play with her best friend, Hannah, and “the girls.” Since then I’d always considered canasta a game for older Jewish ladies. I never pictured myself the type who sat around playing cards in the afternoon. But then again, I hadn’t reconciled that I had become middle-aged.

When my friends and I became empty nesters, with the good fortune to be retired or have flexible work schedules, some started playing mah-jongg. That had been my mother’s game — as she sat outside clicking tiles at the pool club in her oversized Jackie O sunglasses. Picture Mrs. Maisel, complete with a cabana boy serving iced tea. I was too modern for that. I volunteered, went to galleries, did some freelance work. I was too busy to sit around for hours playing games.

Then I got pressured to play bridge. It sounded intellectual. “It’s good for your brain” was the selling point as friends tried to recruit me. My cerebrum did need exercise — it was a bit scary that I occasionally forgot words, or my phone, or my kids’ names. I signed up for lessons with friends at the local community center. How hard could it be? Truthfully, it was very hard. Our group was the youngest by 10 years, but that didn’t give us the advantage. We were frustrated, confused and got tired of being shushed by the “grownups.” We were tripped up by the tricks, and the North-South, East-West partnerships only made us lose direction. Clearly, our minds needed an easier workout. Lori, a member of our remedial bridge group, was simultaneously learning canasta.

“It’s easier, and more fun than bridge,” she promised, and offered to teach us.

I didn’t want to add to my card confusion. One game was enough, so we became bridge dropouts and served as guinea pigs for our fledgling instructor. We sarcastically pronounced it ca-NAY-sta, with a heavy New York accent, like our grandmothers, making it sound even more ethnic.

Wondering how it got that name, I checked Wikipedia, learning that canasta is Spanish for basket, and it was actually devised by two Uruguayan men in 1939. I hoped I wouldn’t become a “basket case” trying to learn new rules. Fortunately, I got it. Yes, there were melds and rules, and special hands you needed to remember. And you had to count aces and 7s, and I often ran out of fingers and memory. But I didn’t need “Canasta for Dummies.” I’d say it was halfway on the difficulty scale between Go Fish and bridge. Besides, there were snacks, AND you could chat and gossip — and no one gave you the side-eye.

Canasta was the most popular American game in the early 1950s, according to The game was even mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye. It’s obviously experiencing a resurgence. There’s a Canasta League of America — the mission proclaimed on its website is to “popularize and standardize the game we love,” since the rules have changed. There’s a Canasta Junction app that has many friends addicted, and I have spied people playing it on the subway, though I have refrained. Our “Canasta Masta” tutor has now taught over 100 students, and many of her newest pupils are younger — stay-at-home moms or working moms who want night lessons. My own informal survey, taken while visiting assisted living facilities in Florida with my elderly parents, confirms that it’s still quite popular with the silver-haired ladies. But it’s obvious that it’s not just your grandmother’s game.

When Alice moved from Queens to Manhattan, I was in my 20s and lived 10 blocks away. Her game continued with new cronies, and I often helped her set up her table, which she kept under the bed. She’d put out a bowl of fruit and a cut-crystal candy dish of Brach’s chocolate bridge mix. She placed a bottle of Welch’s grape juice on the buffet, and added a spritz of soda from the green and blue glass seltzer bottles delivered to her apartment in a wooden case.

Our growing group now plays weekly. We prefer rosé or fancy sparkling water in bright cans. In place of bridge mix we indulge in dark chocolate, gluten free snacks and sushi. My canasta tray is decorated, with a matching $100 table cover and personalized score pads. But we still play with the old-fashioned red and blue Bicycle cards that I remember on my granny’s table.

I don’t know if my brain is stronger or my memory has improved. It definitely takes some concentrating to keep track of which cards have been discarded. I occasionally get some aerobic exercise when my heart races waiting for one card to get a special hand. I’m starting to feel less defensive about admitting to my new pastime. My grandmother probably wasn’t much older than I am when she started her game. She’d raised five children and didn’t apologize for anything. Hoda Kotb and guest host Maria Shriver recently dedicated an entire Today show to talking about the benefits of the Slow Movement in a culture that’s obsessed with speed. These days when life moves at a quicker pace, conversations are reduced to texts and there’s shame in not being constantly busy, our game is a good opportunity to set aside a few hours a week to slow down, talk face to face and develop new friendships.

My grandmother’s game ended when she moved to Florida after a stroke. She passed away seven years ago. I may never make the move south, but at least I’d be prepared. It may be a different game than it was when she started playing, but some things haven’t changed. I think of my sweet grandmother and her friends as I pull my square card table from under the bed, and sitting around it, I am reminded that life comes full circle.