Nickels and decks of cards have always made me think of my dad. My dad, who is now 90 years old, is a sheepshead player and used to play poker too. Sheepshead, for those not lucky enough to have grown up around the game, is a mainstay of many Wisconsin homes of middle European descent. A quick look at the history suggests that this complicated card game may have come from the peasants of 18th century Germany, playing a game on barrel heads where the king doesn’t rank the highest.
But, history aside, I’ve never learned to play the game. It was six year old form of protest not to sit at the table and join the family in this generations old game. Yet, I was there. I watched. I listened. I laughed along. And, I remember the pile of nickels at Dad’s side. I remember how he’d slide nickels across the table to the winner of the hand or gather the nickels into his own pile when he won. They never played for bigger money, just nickels. I have the container that used to hold Dad’s nickels on his dresser sitting on my dressing table now.
Dad lives in an assisted living facility these days. Where he once could remember more than just about anyone I know, he now grows frustrated with the holes in his memory. Some things are hard to hold on to in his head. He doesn’t always remember the names of the grandkids and great-grandkids. He gets the names of us kids confused sometimes. Sometimes I’ll ask about something that happened during my lifetime and he’ll shake his head as if trying to jar the memory loose, then just tell me he doesn’t know about that.
Still, for a man of 90 years his memory remains incredible. I am reminded of this by the nickel and a deck of cards. Dad now mostly plays for chips. It’s apparently illegal in Wisconsin to play for nickels in senior living facilities. He still plays sheepshead. I still don’t know what it means with all it’s schmears and trumps and whatever else, but I know he knows the cards.
Back at Christmas time I was playing King’s Corners with him. It was new game to both of us. He struggled at first picking up on how to play this simple game, but it wasn’t long before he was pointing out my slip ups. He knew the cards and knows how to think as a card player. We laughed and joked and remembered his old friends together.
We laughed at my clumsy shuffling as I lamented that I should have learned from him back when I was a child and he was ready to teach me. I admired how well he still shuffles and deals while he said he just can’t do it like he used to.
I think about all the kitchen tables he’s sat at over the years dealing out those cards with such skill, gathering nickels or poker chips, and sliding them out across the table again, laughing, joking with friends and family, swapping stories. Then I find myself thinking of the regular card games that used to happen when I was young. My dad and some of his friends had a poker club. I remember when it was our turn to host. Mom and I would clean. I’d help out filling bowls with peanuts other snacks, run downstairs to get the poker chips, ash trays, and the ice bucket from behind the bar in the basement. Dad would mix drinks in those special glasses we had with the wild animals on them. I’d get a Shirley temple.
The guys would arrive and I’d get to help put away coats. Mr. Steffen would blow smoke rings with his pipe for me. The kitchen would eventually become a cloud of smoke between that pipe and Jerry and Kenny’s and I don’t remember who else’s cigarettes. I’d play while the men jovially bantered over their game until it was time for me to kiss Mom and Dad goodnight and go to bed. From there, their game went on well into the night and Mom and I would wash dishes in the morning knowing it was a good night of fun and friendship.
I think Dad is the last of the players at that table still in the game of life. He’s dealt many hands in his life and it won’t be long until he deals his last. I am thankful for all the memories he’s given me. While I may never learn to play sheepshead or poker, or maybe I will, who knows, I will always know my father’s love every time I hold a nickel or a deck of cards.