A Short History of Porch Bingo at Our Annual Girls’ Week at the Cottage
My upcoming play “Once Upon a Rocking Chair” is 90% fiction. The 10% of truth is inspired by my mom, aunts, and cousins. For years we had the annual tradition of going to the cottage together for a week: Girls’ Week. It started when my cousins and I were kids as a getaway for the moms (my mom and her two sisters). When my cousins and I were in our 20s we slowly infiltrated the tradition, starting by coming at the end for the weekend. Then our stay got longer and longer until we were all there. It continued for years. I think our last official Girls’ Week at the cottage was in 2008 or 2009, with three generations of Lamondins.
Although the play features six actors, there were more than six of us at Girls’ Week. The six characters are representations of all of us in many ways. I remember sitting on the porch during our Girls’ Weeks and noticing the strength of the women, their compassion, intelligence, humour, and value of family above all else. In the 20+ years of Girls’ Week there was never any conflict. We were lucky to have such a perfect week together each year.
This is a true story about our Girls’ Week tradition of Porch Bingo and how it came to be…
It was first published in From the Cottage Porch: An Anthology by Jessica Outram and Ewa Krynski in 2011. Then it was published The Country Connection Magazine, Summer/Autumn 2011.
Britt, Ontario: 1997. Aunt Pat, Aunt Estelle, Nancy, mom, and I arrive early. We sit at a folding wood table in the Britt Legion. To attempt to filter the air, a ‘smog hog’ hangs in each corner from the ceiling, but the smoke still buries deep into my clothes, my hair, my skin. The scent lingers for days after I leave bingo. Dart boards and pictures of past Legion executives and veterans line the walls.
I count sixty-seven people at bingo tonight. Mom and I made a deal. If I win, she gets half my prize. If she wins, I get half her prize.
When I look into the faces and eyes of the people here, I see something familiar. I see pieces of mom, Uncle Bruce, Aunt Pat, Aunt Estelle, and my brother looking back at me. For years I’ve wondered about the resemblance. I’ve wondered if we are all related somehow. It isn’t until 2010 I learn about my Métis heritage and I finally understand my attraction to the beautiful people with the deep brown eyes.
Two minutes left before the game begins. Three people still need to buy bingo cards. Mom passes me her troll with the orange hair and tinfoil crown. Mom made it for Aunt Pat for Christmas last year as a joke to persuade her to join as at bingo. Aunt Pat said we should all share the bingo troll and it should live in mom’s bingo bag, and then she said she would be delighted to play bingo with us.
“Maybe tonight you’ll win,” mom says to me.
At the front of the room, the bingo caller, a man in his late thirties with black hair and dark sunglasses, switches on the bingo machine and turns the crank to spin the balls.
“Good evening and welcome to the Britt Legion Bingo,” he says. “There are 171 days until Christmas. Don’t forget to buy your raffle tickets for the baking table to support the Britt Community Centre. The 50/50 draw will be just before the jackpot game. But, first we need to pick our King and Queen.”
I poke mom in the arm. We hope Aunt Pat gets picked as the Queen. It’s her first time at the Britt Legion Bingo. Even though Aunt Pat lived here when Britt didn’t have electricity and she grew up being chased by Wally and Uncle Bruce with snakes, Aunt Pat lives in Toronto now. Mom, Aunt Estelle, Nancy, and I put her name in the bowl for Queen.
“Pat!” the caller announces.
A stocky girl with long black hair brings Aunt Pat the tinfoil crown. Aunt Pat must wear the crown for the entire game.
“Alright, Queen,” the caller says. “Pick your number.”
“If B-7 is called, you must stand up and declare ‘I am the Queen of the Britt Legion Bingo.’ Then one of the girls will bring you a loonie.”
The King of the Bingo picks O-66, clickety-click.
“Our first game: one line, any direction.”
Silence sweeps the room. The bingo balls tumble in the bowl of the machine. Tockatockatockatocka-tock! One pops out.
“I am the Queen of the Britt Legion Bingo!” Aunt Pat proclaims. She stands and waves her hand like Princess Diana.
“Giiiiiiiiiiiiivvvvvvvvvve the Queen her loonie,” the caller replies.
The bingo girl skips to our table. She smacks a loonie on Aunt Pat’s open hand and smiles.
Mom went to her first bingo with Aunt Blanche in Sudbury. Aunt Blanche could play twenty-four cards at a time. She played at the French Bingo at St. Jean de Brebeuf on Notre Dame Avenue in Sudbury. She used smooth silver markers that looked like nickels because no one had invented clear markers or flashy daubers yet.
Every time she won the jackpot she hid it. She donated it to the church or bought clothes for her nieces and nephews. She bought my mom a new winter coat and Uncle Bruce his first suit.
The Britt Legion bingo ends. I didn’t win tonight. I had hoped to buy some new magazines and rent movies with my winnings. Mom nearly won. She needed O-75, the Grandpa of Bingo.
Aunt Pat, Aunt Estelle, Nancy, mom, and I pile into the burgundy Impala. We drop off Nancy on the side of the road, in front of her cottage. Nancy’s cottage is Grandma Laura’s old house, the house where mom grew up.
Two summers later, the postmaster told dad that bingo had moved from the Britt Legion.
“Magnetewan First Nations built a new community center,” dad reported. “Bingo’s still on Thursday but you’ll have to go across the river.”
Mom and I picked up Nancy on the side of the Britt Road on Thursday night. We drove south on Highway 69. We turned at the Byng Inlet turn-off.
The Magnetewan Community Centre sparkled with newness. No cigarette smoke. The mosquitoes stayed outside. But there was no Queen of the Britt Legion Bingo, no Christmas countdown. Just serious bingo.
My cousins came to the Magnetewan bingo one summer. Sarah and Andrea were naturals. Lorel’s dramatic panic to keep up with the caller made me snort. But it was Chantell who called a false bingo.
We needed to get one line to win.
Someone called “Bingo!”
“Are there any other bingos?” the caller asks, “Are there any other bingos? Are there any other bingos? Bingo closed.”
Next we needed to get two lines. The caller said, “N33.”
Chantell shouted, “Bingo!”
Aunt Pat mouthed a slow motion “nooooooooo.” It was too late.
“We have a Bingo,” the caller said.
A young girl with hot pink Crocs skipped over to check Chantell’s card.
“No bingo! False alarm!” Aunt Pat called.
Chantell squished her eyes closed. She needed N33 to get one line. To win this game, she needed to get two lines.
“It’s a bad bingo,” the girl shouted.
In 2005 Mom decided to set-up an annual summer bingo game on the porch at our cottage. We called it Porch Bingo.
Mom, the shyest one of the group, picked the role of Bingo Caller.
“B-4 not B-after,” mom calls. She wears a bejewelled tinfoil crown. She holds up a bingo ball.
Our laughter travels out the windows to Georgian Bay.
Auntie Ann, Lorel, Jaimy, Nat, Aunt Estelle, Sarah, Andrea, Aunt Pat, Chantell, and I compete for the jackpot. Yellow markers, bingo cards, party snacks, and wine glasses cover the tables on the porch.
“Forty!” we shout.
“I-17, Dancing Queen,” mom calls.
“Bingo!” Chantell squeals.
“Are you sure this time?” Andrea asks.
“Are there any other bingos?” Mom asks with a flat voice. “Are there any other bingos? Are there any other bingos? Bingo closed.”
Chantell reads out the numbers on her winning card.
“That’s a good bingo!” mom proclaims.
Chantell takes the tinfoil crown from mom and places it on her head. She selects a prize wrapped in green paper from the laundry basket and tears it open to find frog-shaped salt and pepper shakers with googly eyes. Aunt Estelle snaps a picture of Chantell beaming at her prize.
We clear our cards. Mom puts the balls back in the spinner. “Next game: postage stamp, any corner.”
“What’s that?” Jaimy asks. She just turned sixteen. It’s her first Porch Bingo.
“Four squares together in a corner, like a stamp on an envelope,” I reply.
It’s 2011. We play Porch Bingo whenever my aunts and cousins are in Britt. Mom and I go to bingo at the Magnetewan Community Centre a couple times a summer. We still split our winnings.
Now it’s 2017. I can’t remember the last time we played Porch Bingo. Years ago. Our mothers switched to Word Feud and Words with Friends, regularly passing the emoji crown whenever they were on a winning streak.
But I think for now Aunt Estelle gets to wear the crown for as long as she likes. We are heartbroken over her passing on April 23, 2017. She was such a beautiful, amazing woman in every way and will be deeply missed. It is such a gift to be able to capture what was so special for us about Girls’ Week in a play about women who love and support each other unconditionally.