Mah Jong became my passion when I turned 58. I always thought it would be golf. I never pictured myself as a knitter. But Mah jong? Who knew!!
My sojourn with Mah Jong began with a local adult education class two years ago. After ten sessions and a bit of practice, a few friends and I decided to try out our new skills at the local assisted living facility, Willow Towers in New Rochelle, New York. Our visit was promoted to the residents as a one-day Mah Jong Clinic. We arrived with several sets of tiles, and lots of cards expecting an onslaught of senior women wanting to play. Surprisingly, we were greeted enthusiastically by only one woman – Mollie Bookchin. We asked where the other players were and she said: “Can you believe I am the only old Jewish woman here who plays! I just moved here from Long Island and want to play so badly,” So we played that day, and we fell in love with Mollie. She was 86, feisty, smart and funny. We made a schedule to continue to visit on the first Friday of the month. Thereafter, whenever we arrived at 10:15 am for our Mah Jong date, Mollie was waiting at the card table. The nursing home advertised our visits on the calendar posted on the elevator, and slid under the residents’ doors, but still it was always us and Mollie.
Occasionally, we could convince others to watch. No one else wanted to play. One of the watchers was a woman named Amy who said she used to play all the time. However, we could see right away Amy had severe dementia. She dressed sharply, had her silver hair beautifully coiffed, and her nails painted a bright red. Despite her elegant appearance and sense of humor and smile, it was clear she couldn’t remember how to play> Nevertheless, she would often sit alongside me as my “partner.“ Mollie was happy to have Amy watch, and was patient when Amy would ask questions about the game, but Amy just never was able to play with us.
I was getting my nails manicured a few weeks ago next to a woman who told the manicurist she was going away for a conference. I said I was going to a women’s retreat organized by my synagogue that weekend, was she? She explained that she was actually going to Florida on a business trip. We began to chat about work, children, schools and the neighborhood. She described how she was contemplating moving her business to Florida but was stressed about leaving New York because her mother had dementia. I asked where her mother lived. She replied, “Willow Tower.” All the sudden I saw the resemblance and I tearfully asked, “Is your mom Amy?”. Sure enough, it was Amy’s daughter Jodi. We talked all about Amy and how I “played” Mah Jong with her. I told her that I knew her mother and she was beautiful and funny, and I had connected with her. Jodi received that information as a gift.
We continued to play with Mollie. She became a dear friend, enquiring about our families and activities. She told us about her life, her children and grandchildren and history. I asked her when her birthday was, and she said turning 89 the first week of June. So, I brought her a t-shirt that said “Mah Jong Queen” on it and was preparing to bring muffins with a candle to celebrate next week for her birthday.
Yesterday I got a call from Willow Tower. Mollie had unexpectedly passed away in her sleep the night before. I wept. I lost a dear friend. The time I spent with Mollie these past few years were treasured moments – for Mollie but also for me and my friends. And the Mah Jong Queen t-shirt that I never got to give Mollie? I plan to give it to Jodi to give to Amy, who is now in a memory unit at the facility. It is my way of saying goodbye to Willow Tower, and thanks for the love.