FRESH YARN presents:

The Game of Life
By Kathleen Dennehy

My sister was going into labor early so I thought it best to get the hell out of Dodge, also known as suburban Connecticut. I was already packed, even though my flight back to LA was four hours away. As the nanny drove over to watch my sister's other kids she helpfully swerved her car into a tree, and ended up in the same hospital my sister was headed to. I suggested we drop the kids off at Emergency so Mommy and the nanny could watch them from matching gurneys, but humor was in short supply. So I delayed my flight back home.

My nieces, 11, 7 and 5, only knew me until this point as a source of fun -- good, bad fun. I was the single aunt, the bad aunt, the one with the low-rise jeans, no savings, bad jobs and worse boyfriends, obviously dyed hair and blue fingernails. Who else would teach them how to spit, what naughty words meant, and how to snap gum? I allowed them to tie up my boyfriend with a muddy garden hose during a christening party, I proudly introduced them to my patented diabolical fried donut and ice cream sundae for breakfast, and let them wear my platform shoes and jump on Granny's good couch. Someone has to be the good, bad aunt. It's my job, and dammit, I'm good at it. Their parents always had lurked nearby to brainwash their kids back to civility with surgical precision. Until now.

Olivia, the five-year-old reassured her mother, "Don't be scared now." Molly, age seven, waved, "Have a good baby!" My sister promised she would, as she left with her husband. An electric charge of expectation of imminent upheaval followed them out the door. A burst of cold air escaped inside and made us feel that much more left alone. Then three little heads swiveled from the departing vapors of their parents to me.

Little kids only know they are little kids when they are suddenly parent-less. Then they realize that parents come in handy. Freedom is scary when you don't have someone keeping you from it. The girls were suddenly forced to find their safe harbor in me. As six massive blue eyes widened and wetted I practically shouted "How about a game?" A deep survival instinct I didn't know I had kicked in. The girls nodded bravely.

My mother showed up but headed right for the kitchen, seizing this golden opportunity to rearrange my sister's kitchen. My mother believes she has an innate gift of knowing just where other people's measuring cups really want to live. See, if Mom does something helpful, like coming over in a jam, then you can't yell at her for being supremely unhelpful, like disappearing your carrot peeler.

Olivia approached solemnly holding out the board game of Life as if it were a sacramental offering. I haven't played Life in thirty years, as I've been busy, on the boot-kicking end of, well… life. As Hannah and Molly threw themselves into fighting over who would be red and who would be blue, I tried not to count the years since I punched that pop-o-matic, dreaming big about my far-off future.

While organizing the cute, but useless, toy money into neat little stacks, more money than I've ever held in my hands, real or fake, I saw that, as in everything else, the game of Life is new and improved. Now it has squares saying things like, "You start a community garden! Move ahead three spaces!" It used to say something like "You turn your play room into a bar. Collect $10,000.00."

We began playing. Everyone was given the choice of going to college or just heading off into career-land. Hannah, the oldest and most fearful, went to college and bought insurance before she had a car. Molly and Olivia leapt right into Life, choosing from a hidden assortment of career options, held in a tidy stack of cards. If only it was that simple, to pick a full-blown career from a stack of cards printed in Taiwan. Molly became a professional tennis player and was pretty happy to earn $80,000 a year until Olivia picked a card and suddenly became a computer programmer pulling in $120,000 a year. As Molly fumed, Olivia ran into the kitchen. "Granny, Granny, I'm a computer programmer and I make $120,000 dollars. Each and every year!" Granny said, "Great, now you can take care of your Aunt Kathy." A drawer slammed shut, silverware resettling in its new rightful place. I pictured my sister, opening drawers while dandling her newborn, and swearing under her breath. I wondered how long it would take her to find her knives.

As Molly and Olivia embarked on their tiny plastic lives, blithely hitting every milestone that I've somehow missed, Hannah was eager to graduate as she nervously watched her younger sisters advance towards Millionaire's Row. She was panicky about being left behind and asked me if her stint in college would give her any kind of advantage in her fake life. As a proud graduate of NYU with a very expensive degree in Experimental Theater, I worried that Hannah would graduate with honors only to land on a square that made her a waitress in an East Village Turkish diner for five years until she'd get fired for asking to get the day off for Thanksgiving.

I am happy to report that Milton Bradley has the presence of mind to not scare little kids as they pretend to be grown ups. Thankfully, there are no squares condemning children to a series of bread and butter, soul-crushing minimum wage jobs that have no dignity, nor cover the exorbitant rent on your dark, noisy, bug-ridden studio. No one lands on squares that lead you into long, twisted relationships with bisexual men who end up leaving you for your best female friend. No squares have you divorced by thirty-four, where you lose your dog in a custody battle, then condemn you to jump into the great mirthless whirlpool of internet dating, which only makes you feel more single than ever at 36, in an illegal sublet with a deaf cat and no savings to speak of. No, the board game of Life is blessedly trauma-free.

In about eight inches of colorful shiny cardboard, Molly had a great career as a professional athlete, was married, had two cars and owned a series of workout clubs, bringing her in an additional $20,000 bucks every four squares. Then she goes and has twins, while on a world vacation with her little blue peg of a husband. I was jealous of a seven-year-olds' toy life. When I automatically placed her tiny blue husband in the driver's seat of her car, she asked me why she had to be a passenger in the car she earned with her own pink and yellow money. "How come we don't have two cars? Like Mommy has the Suburban and Daddy has the red car we can't eat in?" I respected her wishes, mindful that the days of one-car families went out with my childhood. In fact, in Molly's game family, the little blue dad's car followed her car, and he had the twins in the back.

I was ashamed of my automatic regression to how we played as little girls, where it wasn't so much about careers as it was about landing the big, rich doctor and having lots of babies, and you sat shotgun, and considered yourself lucky at that. My nieces are blissfully ignorant of our not-so-distant roles as sweet seconds in command. They are going to be their own safe harbors.

Ever safe and practical Hannah became an accountant. I winced, not wanting that for my gorgeous, creative, first niece, but then she collected a tithe off every bank transaction we completed. Yeah, she wasn't a computer programmer, or a star athlete, but she quickly and quietly amassed more fake money than I have real. Olivia wanted to change her career since she really didn't know what a computer programmer was, and I was no help explaining it to her. She got to be sheriff and that suited her just fine.

Molly was the It girl of the Game of Life, fast becoming an international diplomat and the editrix of Vogue, but she eventually hit a rough patch. What seven-year-old that doesn't live in a plastic bubble thinks she needs insurance? She had a major board game certified car accident and lost everything. Her china blue, saucer-sized eyes widened as I gently pulled her husband and kids from the extra car and extracted a bunch of bills from her stacks of bank. She gulped and looked around at all of us, and we held our breath, worried that she might lose it and ruin the game.

She shook off the blow, and slowly, deliberately shrugged. "Well," she said philosophically, "That's life." We all exhaled and nodded ruefully. There but for the grace of God goes our brightly colored game piece. Chin up, Molly moved on, only to land on a square where she won a MacArthur genius grant for her work with ecologically sound Play-Doh.

We all ended up on Millionaire's row, in our little McMansions with lovely painted cardboard gardens. Everyone was successful in this game of Life.

My brother-in-law called from the hospital. My sister had a baby, another girl. It felt as real as if it was another square that one of us had landed on. I wiped a tear away, thinking of my baby sister with four stunning, smart, able and wonderful daughters, and the real, huge and scary world she was beholden to shepherd them through. I sighed and smiled. "Anyone want to play again?" We collected the money and the little colored pegs and started again, from scratch.


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