That’s the name of our family card game: Spite and Malice. It’s one of those family traditions that’s so ingrained you sometimes fail to recognize that it’s not something everyone does. Sort of like when Ian and I were in Germany together and the meals at the youth hostel were exactly like what my German grandma always served us, and for the first time I realized I’d been raised on ethnic food. It had always just been food.
Spite and Malice is pretty simple, although without cards in front of you the explanation might sound messy.
Each person has a stack of 21 cards he or she is trying to get rid of. You get five cards in your hand and there are four discard piles in your own personal foot near your stack. You get rid of cards by making and replacing four stacks in the center that everyone plays on that build up from from ace to queen. Kings and Jokers are wild. The distinctive thing about Spite and Malice is the deck is as big as you want it to be, usually at least four decks mixed together, so it’s the perfect game for using old decks that aren’t complete. My grandmother played bridge for years, so she was always adding decks as they got dirty or too old to the Spite and Malice pile. I have some of her cards mixed into our own Spite and Malice deck.
Some of my favorite memories are of sitting around grandma’s kitchen table playing Spite and Malice with any family who were up for a game–usually my grandma, my mom, my brothers, an aunt, a cousin…. My dad had the infuriating habit of not turning over the next card in his main stack after playing the one on the top, and just playing things out of his hand or foot which don’t really matter. The only cards that matter are the ones in the stack you are trying to get rid of, but he’d play blindly for awhile, not knowing what card he should be working toward, and invariably when he finally turned that card over it was the perfect thing. Maddening to watch, I must say, but it kept us laughing.
It’s the kind of game where there is always something going on, but not so much that you can’t talk the whole time. That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t take concentration, so you can think about the game or not and it’s all fine. It’s something to do while you just laugh and enjoy being together. Which is a pretty lovely result for a game with such a cruel sounding name.
This weekend I finally taught it to Aden. I think I was a little younger than she is when I learned it, but because grandma spent her last few years in a nursing home Aden didn’t have the advantage of growing up around that kitchen table which was the accepted venue for Spite and Malice. Pulling out cards and boardgames isn’t as natural as pulling out laptops in our home, I’m afraid. Although there are moments when we are faced with each other and need to think of amusing ways to pass the time where cards and games are the best possible thing.
Aden was very excited to learn Spite and Malice. I can’t remember the last time I played, but it felt good to be dealing out cards from the giant deck. At first Mona was upset that she wasn’t being included, so I told her she could help me while I taught Aden. I really just wanted to get one kid good at it before trying to teach it to the next one. Mona wiggled around next to me and was enthusiastic for about ten seconds and then drifted off to do something else.
Aden caught on quickly. About halfway through we stopped playing with open hands so I could walk her through what we should both be doing, and were able to just play. I’d forgotten just how much fun that game can be. Of course, the fun is really all in the company, and Aden is wonderful company.
My hope is to play with Aden a few times a week before my grandmother’s memorial service in December so that by then she’s a pro. When we travel to Ohio to say our goodbyes I’m going to bring my Spite and Malice deck and see how many relatives I can get interested in a game. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to my grandma than to have us sitting around a table together, playing our family game, and talking. She’d have loved that. I’m just sorry she never got to play with my daughter.