My mother plays anagrams

My mother plays anagrams

Los Angeles, California.

My 99 year old mother has been slowly declining for many years now. In her prime she and my late father played a game with other couples called “anagrams.” My parents were so good at this game that they never took the same side, it was usually men against women. The game didn’t come in a box and I’m sure they took an existing game and re-wrote its rules to suit themselves. It was over 100 tiles with letters on them, like scrabble tiles with no numbers. They honed the set based on letter frequency in words: 10 of the letter “E” and 1 of the letter “Z” etc.

The game they played was simple: turn all the letters face down, mix them up, then start turning them over. Here’s an example of how it went:

Turn over letter 1: “A”

Turn over letter 2: “T”

Whoever says the word “AT” first gets it for their team.

Turn over letter 3: “P”

Whoever says the word “PAT” first gets it for their team.

You can make new words out of the loose letters or use the loose letters to change any words already made, either yours or your opponent’s.

No proper names, words have to be in the dictionary (they had two book dictionaries on the table) and unlike my example above, they played with a rule that words had to be 5 letters long.

My father died in 2000 and my mother hasn’t touched this game since. Know that my mother, who is in the throws of serious dementia now, has a BA in English from NYU and was an editor at Viking Press and proofed many of John Steinbeck’s books (she knew him). In other words, she was and in some respects still is literate. She was also an extremely fast thinker and while my father was a very literate guy as well, my mother was the “one.”

Her old anagrams set was so broken down that it was impossible to use, and the tiles are too small for her to see now, so I made her a set of laser-printed tiles that I laminated to make them more durable. I made exactly the same set that they played with (same number of each letter).

We let go of the 5 letter word rule and once I got her going on it she came out of her dementia and started really cooking, using up all the letters making a variety of words, some complex with complex changes that blew my mind.

My mother’s helper, Marta had no idea my mother had this in her and her jaw dropped when she saw my mother in action.

Know that my mother cannot see all the words in front of her but I read them and from memory she used loose letters to alter them in creative ways. Most of us would need to see the words to work on anagrams, she was able to do the reconstructions in her head.

I only wish I’d started her on this sooner as she really enjoyed it and it’s a great brain exercise for her.

Moral: it’s not just about physical exercise, it’s also about cognitive exercise: Ya gotta keep your noggin working to keep your noggin working.


  1. Impressive. We have to remember the real people behind the illness. They are there, it is us who so easily forget this. I hope you understand what I try to say here, Richard. So wonderful that you made a new version of this game for her.

  2. Great Story, what a lady, I’m a huge Steinbeck fan so this impressed me as well! Interestingly I had just watched a show last night about the importance of keeping the brain active! My grandfather lived to 100 and he was a very active man always kept himself busy (and didn’t mind a smoke or a beer I might add). Anyway , I really enjoy your photos but this story warmed my heart – thanks mate !

    1. Thank you so much Antony, both for your kind words about my photos and for your comment about this post. According to my mother, Steinbeck gave her a large bottle of expensive French perfume as he was happy with the editing she did.

      You may not have caught these when I posted them but here are a few images of my mother when she was writing for a movie mag back in the day:

  3. So wonderful you thought to improvise the Anagrams for your mother to be able to “see” and play… and exciting that she was able to show you how sharp she still is!

    1. Right Diane. She’s amazingly sharp and all from memory because she really can’t see the words in front of her, I had to read them to her but after hearing them read, she was able to use free letters to make new (and complex) words. Incredible really and even more so that she did it in her head. That’s a gene I don’t think I’ve inherited.

  4. That was so great of you to enlarge the anagram letters for your mom, Richard. And what a profound experience it must have been for you to see her light up and play so well.

    1. It was amazing Gary. She was like a different person. It was a real wakeup call for me to work harder to keep her brain stimulated. I’m hoping Marta can do a bit of this between my visits and I’ve invited her cousin Bob and his wife Mary to come over and play this with her not only when I’m visiting but weekly if they could swing it. Not sure they’ll follow through, he’s 85 and has is own stuff going on. I’m kicking myself for not trying this out ten years ago and attempting to keep it up. I’m pretty sure it would have kept her synapses lubricated better, so to speak.

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