Picture by Clarissa Watson at Unsplash
Dark navy cardboard box, patched at two corners with green duct tape. Gold monogrammed FM on the lid: Fortnum and Mason? No, the font’s all wrong. Inside, the remains of the original Scrabble box, burgundy, like the urn for her ashes. The hinged board, the four wooden trays with their curved backs. Plastic letters in a drawstring hessian bag labelled DRY SACK SHERRY. Underneath, the box lid with the instructions, nestling in folded wrapping paper printed with a red and blue geometric design, roundels with a stylized bird and curlicues of flowers framed by the words NÉPMÜVÉSZET HÁZIIPAR.
Granny routinely beat me at Scrabble, in her third or possibly her fourth language. Words were my thing, even then; I didn’t understand it. She beat my parents and my sister too, though they were better at it than me. I spent years losing at Scrabble to my family, because they understood what I did not: that how you won wasn’t about finding the right words but about numbers and strategy, making the patterns of the board work for you. It wasn’t the first or the last time I would fail to grasp the rules of the game.
After sixty-five years of living in England, Magda still sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor. She told me once that she’d stopped speaking Hungarian to my dad when they left Budapest in 1939 because she wanted him to forget the language; she didn’t speak English to him because she didn’t want him to pick up her accent. “How did you communicate?” I asked. “Oh, we managed somehow,” she said. Six years old, that small boy, in a foreign country, half his family gone and his mother not speaking to him. How do you make any of that add up?
“It doesn’t do to get too involved with another woman,” my grandmother said, the first time I visited her after telling her I was a lesbian. “That sort of thing is always worse when it breaks up.” I wondered how she knew. We played Scrabble, and I won for once. She wanted a rematch, but I was tired from my early start, and wanted a nap; I thought we’d play again later. She welcomed my partner, loved her. Died five years before I found out for myself what that sort of thing is like when it breaks up.
I lived with Magda’s ashes for seven years; at the time, I didn’t feel as if I had a family any more, and the urn was a comforting presence on top of the bookcase in my sitting-room. There are no gravestones or markers in the garden of remembrance, and when I go there it’s my father I talk to mostly. I kept the Scrabble set untouched until a couple of days ago. Then I pulled it out from under the bookcase, opened the box, and began making words about her, for her, with the letters that were hers.
Caroline Gonda has words at Reflex, Lunate, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Literary, Bluesdoodles, Pastel Pastoral, Second Chance Lit, Tipping The Scales, NFFD Flash Flood, Oxford Live Writing Project, Tomorrow’s World/Le Monde de Demain and Legerdemain: The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2021. She teaches and writes on literature, gender and sexuality.