Thinking About My Mom and Mah Jongg to Get Through COVID-19

June 12, 2020

Mah Jongg is my escape. I love the way it takes my mind off the world around me requiring my undivided attention. The concentration during the game reminds me of practicing yoga–the focus, the strategy, and the speed, although some games are slower than others.

I think Mah Jongg was my mom’s escape, too. Since my father passed away in August, after a quick and devastating bout with pancreatic cancer, I found it to be something we could still do that actually made her smile, which wasn’t that easy. My parents, high school sweethearts in the 1960s, had just celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and suddenly my father was gone.

Maybe it was the combination of focusing on the game and the joy of being together that did it. But, I guess that’s what Mah Jongg is all about.

As a child, I remember my mom playing Mahj, as she always referred to it, with her friends, mostly in the evenings. I would sneak half-way downstairs in my nightgown, sit on the landing, looking through the slats in the banister watching and listening to the ladies playing with the tiles, laughing, and of course gossiping. I also remember my mom yelling up to my dad to put me to bed, which is pretty ironic. Now I do the same thing to my husband when my friends come over to play and my kiddos keep appearing at my side, wanting to “help.”

Over the past few years, my mom made certain everyone in my circle knew how to play Mah Jongg. She taught my 10-year-old son (when he was about 6) and has since taught my daughter, who is now 6. You should have seen the nachas in her eyes when my 10-year-old son declared “Mah Jongg” and proudly displayed his tiles for all to see.

A few years ago, my mom began suggesting (nagging) that I start a game with my friends. She said I was the right age, whatever that means.

I would tell her my friends and I were too busy. We had small children, husbands who worked late, some worked full-time, it was just too hard to organize and none of them knew how to play.

A few years went by, my mom’s nagging continued, and I finally caved.

I asked a few close friends if they would want to learn to play, and looking back, I’m so thankful I did.

After my dad passed, my mom spent most of her time schlepping to South Florida from her home in Daytona Beach to be with me and my children. “D” as they lovingly called her, short for Diane, just couldn’t get enough of her grandchildren.

When she drove down, we played a lot of Mah Jongg. We played with my friends, we played with my kids, we laughed and we genuinely enjoyed those moments.

This past February, just before Coronavirus came into play, my mother died suddenly during a heart procedure. Within a span of six months, both of my parents were gone and I was orphaned at 40. The rush of déjà vu flooded my older brother and me, from the first phone call to the rabbi, to planning the shiva, writing the obituary, and so on.

Then came Coronavirus.

The funeral, the shiva, the walking around the block signifying the end of the shiva, everything is a blur. It was all too soon and too familiar. The constant phrases of “I can’t believe this” and “It’s so surreal,” felt like slaps in the face, even though I knew friends meant well.

The past few months have definitely been a strange time to be in mourning, especially when I can’t go to synagogue. I’m doing my best to recite virtual Kaddish whenever I remember it’s Friday. And, I have found that staying busy has been the best thing for me, which brings us back to Mah Jongg — my escape.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, friends were too worried about germs to play in person, and suddenly, on top of all of the changes taking place, my coping mechanism was taken away too. No more Mah Jongg night, no schmoozing with my friends. My distraction from this horrific year was simply whisked away.

With some time on my hands and my desire to keep busy so as not to think about the loss of my parents or COVID-19, I had an idea. I quickly did an online search for a product to clean my Mah Jongg set.

Just as I suspected– nothing. Not on Amazon, not anywhere. Of course, you could grab any old schmatte or Clorox wipe (should you be lucky enough to possess them) to polish your racks, but with all this talk of germs related to COVID-19, I knew this idea had some value.

After all, when we play, all my friends and I do is nosh and touch our tiles — not a good combo these days. I had come up with something cute and portable to use to clean your set—some “SOAP” to wipe your “CRACK.” Those familiar with Mah Jongg lingo will quickly realize that “soap” and “crack” are both names of tiles. Adorable, right? I wanted something fun that would appeal to a new generation of players.

I realized that for me to find the motivation to launch this business, it needed meaning, and I knew what that was. I wanted to pay homage to parents– my roots. My mom was quite the Mah Jongg maven, so the connection to her was a given, but I needed a component for my dad.

My father’s decline was so fast. There wasn’t time for trials or traveling around to test out treatment plans. If only there was more to do, a way to save him. Would that have saved my mom too? Part of me will always think she died of a broken heart.

In the future, I pray there will be more treatment options, and someday even a cure for this devastating disease. A portion of each purchase of my wipes will be donated to pancreatic cancer research in honor of my dad. I found something positive to focus on during this strange time in everyone’s lives.

On April 1, we launched MahJonggWipes.com. Players can now protect their sets and themselves by keeping their tiles clean and germ free. The mini canisters of antibacterial wipes are adorable and people “crack” up when they read the label.

I often think about how my mom would be handling this pandemic. I know her anxiety would be through the roof. But would she adapt to playing online mahj and attempting zoom meetings? I know she would be calling me for tech support. Or would we just stick to playing with my kids in real life? Even though she’s not with us anymore, I think of her whenever I play.

A few words I spoke at my mom’s funeral come to mind.

“I know she will always be right there with me, telling me which hand to play and whispering in my ear never to pass a flower.”

Now, I can whisper back to her that my crack will always be clean.

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