I Pray and Toss the Dice
by Adele Azar Rucquoi
The giant billboard blared in large somber warning: “Watch out! Gambling is Addictive, If you need help, call this number.”
My purpose here is not to go to the subject of addictive gambling, but rather to give a new slant to the subject. Must all gambling be bad? Aren’t men and women who “lightly” gamble, who love the sport, and who know when not to go overboard entitled to real joy of their own? I’ve grown up with such people and I want to tell you about them. Nothing about their passion requires a billboard size warning.
Back in the middle forties, my parents took me with them to the Syrian America club every Thursday night. Central to most of these good folks was lighthearted banter after a week of sweat and toil in the best of immigrant traditions. The scent of finest Arabic dishes was always in the air syncopated with guttural Arabic chatter.
After dining, young men pulled away the tables. The rhythmic strumming of ‘ode and the clashing tambourines took up the beat. Soon, the passion of the debki dancing took over. The ten-year girl that was me, joins in. Laughter, teasing, romance. I’m wild with excitement. I stomp my feet with the explosive joy all over that hall. Everybody seems happy. Everything seems right.
Late hours don’t matter. Many retreat to the back rooms. I watch young and old men in short sleeved shirts set up round tables, pull out a deck of cards, and grab a seat. The dealer briskly shuffles the cards for the first round of Poker. The atmosphere is crackling with anticipation; you can almost hear the questions: “How much can I put on the line. How high will I go tonight?” Gambling energy rolls over everyone. And it is good.
My dad and his buddies settle in around that deck of cards. The women aim for another room, their room, their table, and their game of Poker with me trailing behind. Suddenly the abandonment of the debki dance gives way to the serious pursuit of the win. I feel the excitement of the night is only beginning.
Handfuls of carefully folded bills appear from each purse. The babbling quickly dries up as now, a female dealer deftly spins out cards to each player. Silence takes over, and instantly, everyone’s in the game. These women too are charged with expectation.
I huddle close to my auntie. (Not my real aunt, but in Arabic culture, every older woman is an auntie!) I watch her card hand grow, her eyes sparkling as the clubs and spades fan out with gusto. I’m wide-eyed, probe every card’s secret. I watch other eyes dart behind the attempted blank expression. Poker face! The meaning is unmistakable.
Poker is a new way to talk. “Check!” “I call!” ‘Hit me again!”
The atmosphere is electric. I’m young and living with them on the edge of my seat.
These grannies’ wrinkled fingers stack coins. Overhead, a clicking fan blade rhythmically breaks the silence. Aunt Naja nervously flips a coin as the dealer spins the final card. Auntie squeezes my hand under the table as that last card is tossed and hidden from view. Aunt Isabelle shouts! “Beat this!” and reveals her winning hand. Nobody can stop her as she reaches into the middle and pulls all the coins and bills to herself. Auntie slumps a bit, and squeezes my hand harder and mutters familiar Arabic curses my father delivers when he’s defeated: “*#*))&##$” Yet, in no time, the energy is back. A toss of the cards opens the round again.
Finally, Auntie herself holds a winning hand. Under the table, she slips me a dollar, sometimes two. Once she slipped me a five. To this day, I’ve never forgotten the feel of that five. And it was our secret.
So there you have it. Could I accuse these elders of defying God? Sinners? Addictive? I celebrate them. I celebrate the gold crosses hanging around their necks, how they finger that cross before a final bet. Some hide their rosaries in their pockets while others finger them in their laps. Some follow a formal religion, and some had no regular practice. But with every bet, I’m convinced that each one threw something of her self into that ring. Something hopeful! Something sacred. Something that honored the community, honored the female communion, and yes, I dare say, honored God.
That ten year old of that immigrant world grew to womanhood. And one day, she entered a convent. I taught school as a Sister of St. Joseph and loved my profession.
My little auntie came to visit me one day. How we talked and laughed over a cup of tea. Of course, the subject was those grand family gatherings. What fun we had rehashing the old poker games. After she left, I entered a quandary that refused to let go. I went up to my room, and just sat on the bed. As Sister Mary Adele, I had to ask myself: Was that gambling night of fun alien to the God I now served? Could the two coexist?
Seeing that loud billboard warning years later after leaving the convent set me on edge all over again. I found myself writing about it.
I explored, went deeper into this so-called contradiction. How to reconcile it in some way. For, in truth, my dad and other relatives continued to gamble. And if not the fun of poker, then it was the huge excitement over plunking large chunks of money on the Stock Market. Dad played stocks like he had played poker. If you wanted to win, you had to play in the big time.
I compared these revelations with earlier journal writings from my convent days. Everything was black and white. This for God: that couldn’t be God. This is good, that isn’t. Behaviors fell into two distinct camps: Even as a kid, when I watched the game of poker, in my heart I knew I could not call this gambling wrong. There was too much fun attached, too much genuine connecting.
That day, when I had asked Auntie in the parlor, did the money really matter?” She replied: Honey, it was simply a way we got together. Money made it fun.” She was right. Most of these gals had been in business, had made it big, and some were still bustling entrepreneurs.
So much light has come through the years. I’m married now, and picking through old memories, I’m struck by the blessings I’d been fed. Red-hot grannies alive in time, in money, in aging. No groaning about aching backs or creaky joints. No matter how depleted their eyesight or arthritic knee or weakened heart, they were about laughter around a game of chance. And that’s the gift those gambling ladies, very senior women, planted in my young soul.
When Jim and I cruised across the Bay of Funday to Nova Scotia last summer, assembled along the inner deck stood a long line of adventurous gray-haired women before the casino machines. One Armed Bandits. Oh, the giggles! The intensity. I watched them closely, dumping one quarter after another into tiny slots, pulling that tight lever down, holding to a promised windfall. Here again: vital gray-haired ladies probing the edges of risk, in truth, phantoms of my Arabic grannies. Win or lose, they would be back for another round.
I’ve come to believe that gambling, whether on a cruise ship, in a Las Vegas ballroom, on the New York Stock Exchange, or even in a little Syrian immigrant club in post war sleepy Orlando completely defies understanding and definition. Each risk-taker must decide for herself what is at stake.
As for older women, there is a kind of metaphor in place when a senior throws the dice. She grows alive, creative, energized whether it be to gamble on the lottery, a stock investment or on a new recipe in her kitchen that just might not rise for the occasion. In one fierce choice, a gambling senior defies the stereotypical image of “hobbling has been.”
I suggest that in all these various forms of chance, we honor a basic truth whose foundation we call religious: life is to be lived. The outcome is never predictable. We can’t let that stop us. We are put here to make these hopeful choices and to know that we toss the dice when we do.