Mah jong group marks half century

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The clinking of plastic is interspersed with a spirited patter of fierce competitors:

“Hurry up!”

“This is not a hand!”

“They’re killing me today. I quit!”

No, this is not the World Series of Poker. It’s the gentle ribbing of good friends playing mah jong at Pasta House in University City just as they have for 50 years.

“We all lived in Canterbury Gardens back then, in the 1950s, and the kids grew up together. That’s how we met. When we first started playing we’d put the kids to bed and play in the evening at someone’s home,” Rose Marie “B” Norber, longtime group member, said. “Sometimes we’d play until two or three in the morning.”

The women who have kept this group going have varied over the years, moving in and out of the group as time and other obligations allowed. Some of those ladies who have graced the table are: Jackie Bergmann, Muriel Caprio, Jean Fisher, Ilene Fleisher, Lillian Guttin, Sophie Keshner, Golda Rothman, and Eunice Weber. But for the most part, there has been a core group that has held the tradition together.

“There were eight or nine of us. Lil and I met 52 years ago,” Jean Fisher, one of the original organizers of the group, said. “We were neighbors and would ask people: ‘Do you play mah jong?’ It was a matter of who could get out of the house. We all had babies at the time. I met Lil and then Ilene. I had a mah jong set.” Fisher said there were not a lot of working mothers back then. “So you would get fed up with your kids and needed a break.” That’s where the weekly mah jong game came in.

In 1960, Muriel Caprio, the senior member of the group, moved from New Jersey to St. Louis with her husband. They moved into Canterbury Gardens where they discovered a friendly community of lots of young people raising families. “We met people out with their children, at the playground and at the pool. There was a lot of camaraderie with everyone,” Caprio said. “Ilene lived there and I clicked with Jean right away.” On mah jong night, she would wait until her husband fell asleep and then would sneak out of the house to go play.

For Caprio, who turns 88 this June, these ladies are now her longest-running friends. “I had a friend from junior high school who just passed away so these ladies are my oldest friends. These are good friendships. If something happens, they’re there for you if you need them…that’s what I call a true friend.”

The others agree. “I love these women,” Fisher said. “We spend the holidays together: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Pesach. We have stayed very, very close friends.”

Norber said that the kidding during the game is part of the affection they have for one another. “We’ve gone through so much together; weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs. We’ve seen each other through a lot of stuff. It’s nice to have real friends like that that you can pick up the phone and call.”

While the women started playing over 50 years ago in the evening to accommodate everyone’s schedules, once the last of them retired several years ago they moved their game to Tuesday afternoons. At first their weekly gatherings included some sightseeing and touring around town before settling down to the business of playing. “Lil worked at Master Cleaners on McKnight until one o’clock,” Fisher said. “I’d pick up her, B, and Muriel and we’d go to the brewery, to the Art Museum, and to other sights around town.” The group moved from playing at each other’s homes to playing at a restaurant. They meet for lunch and then break out the set. After trying a few places nearby they selected the Pasta House where they have made an impression on the employees as well as on other patrons.

“They are very outgoing, funny and very nice,” Joe Kerth, a server at Pasta House, said. “When they come into the restaurant some of the other regulars know them and they all greet each other as they walk to their table. Even though I don’t serve them they tip me on my birthday and Christmas. They’re always laughing.” When he comes over to talk with the women the conversation turns to sports because Fisher is a long-time hockey and baseball fan. “Unfortunately, she’s a Cubs fan,” Kerth said.

The women’s ability to connect with others and their shared joy of being together was put to the test when they lost “Lil” last May. “The funeral was on a Wednesday and we weren’t going to get together on Tuesday like we always do,” Fisher said. “But we said we needed to go to lunch for Lil. So we met like we usually do and cried together.” Norber said some of the other regular groups who meet at Pasta House came to their table to express their sympathies.

The group had not only lost a good friend, the women had lost a player. At the same time, the young woman who had been serving the group for years, Anne Howes, had been learning to play mah jong with her mother. “We asked her if she’d like to play with us and she said she’d be honored,” Fisher said.

“I had only been playing for about a month when they asked me,” Howes said. What was her mom’s advice when she found out her young daughter was going to be playing with seasoned veterans? “My mom said ‘keep your mouth shut and play and learn.'”

The women are very happy to have Howes as a part of their group and say she does a good job of holding her own when they play. Howes has their lunch table set and ready for them every Tuesday at 1 p.m. She finishes her shift and joins the ladies at 2 p.m. to play mah jong for several hours or until she has to go pick up her kids. Through the years, while family situations, hectic schedules and job changes have forced some of the ladies to leave this group, the core remains solid. “I played with other ladies before this group,” Norber said, “and they all went their separate ways and moved. But this group has stayed together.”

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