Scrabble is a near contact sport in our family. I’m fairly mild mannered but put a pale wooden rack before me, fill it with letter tiles and stand back. When it comes to Scrabble, I’ve been known to go for blood.

Recorded in the tattered cardboard cover of our Deluxe Scrabble Game are the scores of every game my husband and I have ever played. That’s thirty years of word-sparring, near pointless Old MacDonald hands (all EIEIO’s), even the ebb and flow of our lives as parents. The early years of our marriage reveal columns of games. Come ‘84 and ‘87, the years the kids were born, we barely played. Starred in red is the highest score (mine, at 529 and the lowest, also mine — 136).

Home on college break this past December, my daughter went on a Scrabble bender. Emma wanted to improve her game and what better way than to take on Mom? “Don’t hold back,” she said, determined to win fair and square. And while I would never throw a game, how could I go for blood against my child? I wavered more than once. Friendly competition felt mean-spirited with my daughter on the other side of the board. Emma was determined to win the old fashioned way — through perseverance and hard work. The best way to support her was to play no differently, to play to win.

Em is a solid player; she knows those consonant-free oddities — ae (one), oe (a whirlwind off the Faeroe islands) and ai (a three-toed sloth). I taught her jo (sweetheart), bo (pal) and wo (woe). Game by game she honed her skills; her words grew more complex as did her playing speed. She began placing words that scored in two directions. Her scores rose from the mid-200’s into solid 300 territory; every now and then she managed the game’s holy grail — a seven-letter word, sometimes into a hot pink triple word spot. She squeaked some wins past me and trounced me, too. Every time she lost (always gracefully, never petulantly) she would turn the tiles face down and ask, “Again?” I’m not a sore loser but two in a row is my limit. For Emma, two losses were mere appetizer. The irony was that as she improved, I had to up my game as well — a true turning of the tables if there ever was one.

Our words took interesting twists, some dancing near once-loaded topics. Bitchy, she played. Toke, I countered. Her eyes widened. I smiled. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell moment passed. Emma played orgy into a triple word space, placing the “y” so that it turned an adjacent la into lay. We laughed at the board’s own joke. OK, orgies are beyond the pale; but in a broader context, sex was no longer a third-rail topic.

There were, however, other generation gaps to bridge. Our well-thumbed Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary had ziti but not zit; for the u-less it had qaid (Muslim leader) but not qi (Chinese concept of life-force energy). Out came Emma’s laptop to buttress zit and qi. Blog, too.

Our last game Emma advanced like Bobby Fischer, playing cattier and vicious to establish the hundred-point lead that carried her to a triumphant
411-319 win. I don’t know who was happier. I don’t like losing, but I loved losing to my daughter. I loved her fighting spirit and her indomitable determination to best me.

Emma graduates from college this May. She will need every ounce of that strength and moxie as she heads into a job market tighter than a tourniquet. She is sure to have her share of near-pointless Old MacDonald interviews and go-fer jobs. Like any mom, I wish for my daughter a life of seven-letter words. All into hot pink triple word spaces.