Cheating at Cards and a Grandmother’s Unconditional Love

queen of heartsImagine we could turn our lives back to exactly one moment and, once inside that instant, make a different choice. From that point, life would play out as it already has with just that small tweak. Where would we be?

My first idea for this superpower took me back to age 16, to the day I cheated at Canasta, a family favorite card game. Of all the mistakes I’ve made, things I’ve regretted saying or leaving unsaid, and opportunities missed, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to forgive myself for this.

I was playing with my Grandmother and, not for the first time, hid some aces and wildcards under my leg when it was my turn to deal. Naturally I spirited these back into play, winning handily. It wasn’t so much the glory of winning I was after, but the satisfaction of getting really good hands.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this happened to be the last time we played.

Just weeks later, my Grandmother died suddenly of a massive heart attack. She was gone. Of course I was filled with all kinds of grief and worry. But one fact became clear: I had cheated her and could never make it right. The evening after the funeral, I locked myself in my room, obsessively playing “Landslide” over hiccup tears, inconsolable over the loss and, not so incidentally, my bad behavior. Writing this, I still feel bad.

Because that sneaky card play leads my personal haunts-me parade, I’ve given it some real soul-searching over the years. Looking back, I have no doubt my Grandmother knew. After all, who watches someone so spectacularly win at a card game and not wonder at the odds-crushing success? My Grandmother continued the game despite my devious manipulation, leaving me with an important realization: She was playing with the single goal of spending time together. She didn’t need to win, moralize, teach me a lesson, or in any way dominate the situation. She just wanted to connect to a rebellious teenage granddaughter as best she could.

This understanding humbles me beyond words. It is a lesson in love. Through it, I can see my imperfection was no barrier. Where other adults in my life would have shamed me, ending the game in indignation, she did not. Maybe she didn’t see it as her role to discipline me, or perhaps she wisely understood in time my card-playing moral compass would come into alignment.

So would I change that moment if I could? Surely I’d have moved through life without that particular guilt and likely would have forgotten that Canasta game these 40 years later. But it seems I’d be trading the small comfort of one less regret for a never-knowing of a much more important idea: my Grandmother’s unconditional love.

Ultimately this story was about her choice, not mine, and my unease has birthed a hard-won, and deeply important insight. For me, it’s a knowing that has solaced me when I’ve needed it most. I was being a jerk. She was loving me anyway.

No, I wouldn’t change that moment, not for the world. These flashbulb memories in our lives, the spots where we land to ponder the what-ifs, are merely pond pebbles forming rings traveling in so many directions. It’s hard to say when the momentary fix may have stolen so much more richness down the line. It may well be the goal is to embrace the mistake, trade the regret for gratitude for lessons learned. Something I think I should practice.


Beth Nichols is a self-proclaimed word geek. She’s also a freelance writer, editor and marketing strategist. Please visit to learn more.