Playing “The Shell Game”


Photo by Olmes Sosa on Unsplash

I don’t remember the moment when I first learned The Shell Game. It may have been when I was at an orientation weekend with other young American exchange students in June of 1973. It may have happened when I was with my Tunisian family, celebrating the beauty of summer at one the many beaches along the coast of that gorgeous Mediterranean country.

I don’t know for sure.

All I know is that I have memories of happily scooping sand into my palm, forming a small dugout hole on the beach. I would repeat the motion over and over, forming two parallel lines of holes, six on each side. At the ends of the rows, a larger hole was scooped out, forming a kind of collecting space to hold the shells each player had won.

I clearly recall feeling the soft, shining sand as it poured out of my hand. I feel as if I am back there on a hot summer day. I feel the bright pressure of the sun on the back of my neck, like a blessing hand. I hear the waves and smell the briny sting of the gentle breeze.

The game was played by putting four little shells into each of the twelve sandy holes. I’d be playing with one other person, and I can picture each of the smiling faces from that long ago adventure. My Tunisian sisters and brother. The other young American kids who were there with me that summer. I don’t know for certain how may of them played “The Shell Game” with me, or what we called it in either Arabic or French. I just remember that for me the game was a unique and wonderful part of my first travel experience. For me, it was a part of Tunisia.

When I returned to the US after three months with my Tunisian family and friends, I rarely played the Shell Game. I think I tried to teach it to some of my local friends, but it wasn’t the same on the shores of the Atlantic, and I put it back into its place in my memory. I rarely thought about it any more.

So it was with a great deal of surprise some years ago that I stumbled upon the game “Mancala” in the school where I was teaching. In one way I was happy to see my game again, but in another it felt as if I’d lost something special. If anyone could buy a wooden board version of my beloved sunny shell game, was my memory still unique and special? I felt as if those deeply visceral sensory memories had faded into pale and commonplace versions of themselves.

Mancala

But something wonderful happened last week, as it so often does in my absurdly lucky life.

I was playing with my little grandson, Johnny. At the age of four, John is learning all about game strategy. If you’ll permit a bit of grandmotherly bragging, I’ll tell you that this little boy is already mastering the planning needed to win at both Tic-Tac-Toe and Checkers. He beats me at both on a regular basis.

So when he wanted something new to learn to challenge his Nonni, he pulled out a Mancala board that had been stored in my closet. We set up the board and I explained the game to Johnny. We played one round very slowly, carefully counting out the shining stones that were in the set instead of the shells I remembered.

After one round, it seemed that Johnny was ready to get serious. He played with a determination and sense of joy that made me smile to myself with pride. I won a game, but he won the next. As we settled in for another competitive round, I looked at my beautiful boy. He was up on his knees, with one hand pressed to the dining room table, holding himself up above the board. His dark brown hair was curled over his ears and forehead. His shining dark eyes were fixed on the colorful stones as he carefully counted each step.

I saw his small hand, curved into the shape of a scoop, holding the stones as he moved each one along the board. And something about the way he bent his fingers to scoop up the little treasures suddenly transported me from my home in cool Massachusetts to a glorious beach filled with sunlight. Something about the tender shape of his neck took me back to the sight of my young friends. Something about the joy of that moment was a collapsing of time that put me right back into the joy of those long ago days.

I grinned at Johnny.

“I love this shell game!” I said happily.

“It’s a stone game,” he answered simply as he scooped out a pile and carefully counted them out for the win.