The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

14 thoughts on “The Family Game

  1. I remember very well being initiated into The Family Game. It was always a fascinating exercise in how well you thought you knew someone (or didn’t). It was always so much fun, and the kids loved that they were included. I remember once the subject was What Would You Want as the Epitaph on Your Gravestone? Ira’s answer, I Told You I Was Sick generated gales of laughter around the room.
    Another time we played and the subject was What Book Had A Profound Effect on You in Your Life? (I may be paraphrasing). My answer was Katherine Graham, who broke the glass ceiling when it came to intelligent, powerful women who had a voice. We went around the room and all the likely candidates were guessed to no avail. I finally admitted it was me who submitted the answer. Given that I felt like a literary lightweight in a roomful of intellectuals most of the time, I felt a sense of triumph that day.
    Thank you Linda for writing about this always enjoyable ritual at so many of the family events.


  2. Myreply to that question about which book was Brothers Karamazov which I read when I was about 15 and discovered you could argue and disagree with your parents. It was startling to me at that time. It had not occurred to me that you could do that.


  3. This was a great blog bringing back so many memories. My girls grew up playing the family game and so looked forward to everyone getting together. We were brought up with the feeling that family was so important to our lives and playing our game made it more fun. My memories of playing the game centered on how much we all learned about each other. My immediate family would never leave as long as others continued. I am positive I am not the uncle you referred to in a negative manner. I think we are all excited about a time when we can all get together in the same room once again.


  4. I remember when both my mom and I put Fellowship of the Ring as our favorite movie. I don’t have a favorite movie, and I don’t think she does either, so it was interesting that we both chose that one!


  5. Linda I thoroughy enjoyed reading your blog all threee times. As you noted I could play that game with our family members endlessly. The insights and humor was great, but, the interaction among all of the family and the extended generations was the absolute best part of it. That you and dad would answer a question exactly the same is not surprising. In order to avoid this among the rest of us, we need to be carefeful in selecting our question. One of my favorite memories comes from Sean answering the question “where will you be 10 years from now?” Sean was not married to Jaime yet (not sure if they were engaged) and the room was filed with all of Jaime’s family- and all of the nuclear family lived in NJ. And the family was/is very, very closee. So Sean’s answeer “anywhere but New Jersey” revealed something which I like and liked very miuch about Sean. Whether it was humor /teasing ( was he just teasing) or was it comfort to be truthful (I think yes, but not sure). Whatever it was- I was impressed. In your blog you also noted that you were teased by a (nameless) brother. I can tell you with 100% confidence that your brother Steven regrets that you were ceaselessly teased.


  6. I remember my first round of playing the family game at Uncle Mark’s with the cousins. Dan still teases me (daily) for one of my more desperate answers. I was trying to make a good impression with everyone, but it’s difficult with the Brodys – never before had I met a clan where every member of the family is sharp witted! Not to mention, ridiculously good at games!

    The question: “What would you name a breakfast cereal?” I felt it was impossible to name a cereal without deciding as specific flavor or type, and I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole, so I gave what I thought was an accurate description of most cereals that wouldn’t limit me in flavors or texture. The resulting answer: “Bigger than Oatmeal.” Literally one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said. Thank goodness Dan still kept me around! 🙂


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