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With Mr. Wiggly, Life Was All Fun and Games

For years, my grandmother refused to play games. Any game. When pressed, she admitted that, when she was a girl, she and her father had been playing a game when she got angry and refused to speak to him for days. Afterward, she was so ashamed of herself that she refused to ever again be caught up in the competition of a game.

On the other hand, I loved games. Long before I could read well enough to follow instructions, I could play a mean game of checkers and a passable round of Parcheesi. I had no patience whatever with anyone allowing me to win. Read me the rules and play fair, come what may. Whenever I suspected my mother of making a less-than-strategic move, I threatened to quit playing because I resented the implication that I wasn't a worthy opponent. As I became more and more suspicious of her skill level, I sought out other competition.

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My grandmother was the next likely candidate. A no-nonsense person, she demanded strict adherence to rules from both children and adults. To my mind, this made her the ideal competitor. But she wouldn't play.

After what must have been unbearable pleading on my part, she finally agreed to play Uncle Wiggly, a game that required at least one participant to be able to read. The game was simplicity itself, designed for preschool competition. No strategy required, just draw the card or spin the dial. The one drawback, to a not-yet-reader, was that every move depended on following instructions written on a card.

I don't remember specifics, but each card was printed with a singsong verse that relied heavily on Uncle Wiggly's ears and whiskers. (Uncle Wiggly was a rabbit.0 It wasn't long before I tired of what I considered a "baby" game.

Little did I know what exposing my grandmother to the adventures of Uncle Wiggly would lead to. She loved the game. Long after I had moved on to the more adult challenge of Monopoly, my grandmother stuck with Uncle Wiggly. All I had to do was suggest we play a game, and she immediately reached for the Uncle Wiggly box. She liked the simplicity of the game. If Uncle Wiggly said to do it, you did it. End of story. No argument.

I finally did persuade her to try Monopoly, but she never quite embraced the spirit of the game. For one thing, she never learned to read upside down, so she was never sure what property she was on unless it was one of the spaces in front of her. And she felt that bidding on property was bad manners. If I wanted something she owned, she just gave it to me. Games would last for hours because nobody bought houses or hotels: It was too complicated to figure the additional rent. So around and around the board we went, never collecting any rent higher than $50 for Boardwalk. Games were decided on the basis of bedtime, rather than bankruptcy.

Eventually, my world expanded to the extent that I didn't have to rely on family members to play with me . Uncle Wiggly was finally given away, and my grandmother was relieved of game duty.

Now that I've acquired a computerized version of Monopoly, I often remember those Sunday afternoons when my mother, grandmother, and I would spend hours circling the board. Although it's hard to imagine my grandmother manipulating anything more complicated than her treadle sewing machine, she might have liked playing against an anonymous computer opponent. As I construct chains of hotels, ruthlessly outmaneuvering my fictional opponents, it's nice to know I'm not hurting anyone's feelings by torpedoing them into financial ruin.

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But then I remember our gentle competition, when bidding was considered impolite and anyone who wanted Illinois Avenue was welcome to it. A time when companionship was worth more than any rent.

Sometimes I kind of miss Uncle Wiggly.

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