The first year after I first moved to my block on the south edge of Columbia, Missouri, I only knew my neighbors well enough for a one-finger-off-the-steering-wheel wave as our minivans passed. Maybe we’d nod in the grocery store, or make some kind of acknowledgment across the room in a restaurant. I remember once ducking behind the Twinkie rack at the local convenience store to avoid chatting with someone whose name I couldn’t quite remember. I knew I’d met her and that she drove a beige Honda, but that was about it.
That all changed when Denise, The Bunko Queen, moved in. Within weeks, she had organized this group of women joined by nothing more than address into a horn honking, cup of sugar borrowing, story swapping support system.
Bunko, for the unitiated, is a stupid dice game. You sit in tables of four and roll the dice to see who can get the most one’s, and then the most two’s, and, well, I’m thinking you can guess the rest. The winners rotate to the next table and the losers stay — unless you’re at the head table, in which case it’s reversed — but that’s not the point. The point is the food — most of which has cream cheese as a primary ingredient — and the conversation. Children and husbands are not allowed, although discussion of them is frequent.
Bunko is different because unlike at your basic, obligatory cocktail gathering, at Bunko you are required to constantly rotate to another conversational setting by virtue of your win/loss record. You cannot stay in your comfort zone, chatting with the next door neighbor for the umpteenth time about her tomato plants. You must move and sit across from the slightly eccentric-seeming lady from up the street, whom you then find agrees with you completely on teenagers’ ridiculously loud stereos and the tackiness of the downtown Christmas display. From there you find that she had a similar problem with her son’s grades, that her marriage survived a crisis that made them feel hopeless, and that she’d be happy to kneel in the dirt with you and teach you about perennials.
Bunko is therapy without the cost, family without the childhood dynamics, and support group without whining. My Bunko buddies provide a pool of experience wider and broader than any gathering of so-called experts. They give me advice, hope and excellent (if fattening) recipes. At Bunko, we are ourselves. We are not just Susie’s mom or Bob’s wife or whatever our job title is, but a marinade of each, plus the athlete we were in high school and the poet we hope to someday become. At Bunko we are our component parts combined. We are, for reasons no bigger than a monthly dice game, friends.
Some months ago, I told my Bunko buddies that I was about to adopt a baby. “I’ve got a bassinet you can borrow,” said one. “I’ve got a changing table,” said another. There were offers of clothes, furniture, babysitters and just plain suppport.
A month later, at the next game, I had to tell them the adoption had fallen through, and each consoled me in her own way.
Yet a week after that, the adoption was back on! In 48 hours, I would be a mom. There was no time to shop for baby furniture or diapers, bottles or diaper pails. I would be flying in the morning to pick up my baby, and I wanted her at least to have a place to sleep. I called one of my Bunko buddies. “Are you the one who had a bassinet?” I asked. “Not me,” she said. “I think it was Carol. Don’t worry about it. I’ll call her.”
Days later, when I walked through my front door with my beautiful newborn in my arms, I found more than just a bassinet. There were diapers, there were sleepers, there was a changing table and a rocker. There were presents piled on the dining room table. There were even “It’s a Girl!” balloons attached to my mailbox. It was like the Baby Santa had pulled a sleigh up to my front porch. But it wasn’t Santa, it was my Bunko buddies, my formerly-unknown, slightly odd neighbors, the ones I hid behind Twinkies to avoid. They are now my friends. All because of a stupid dice game.
Originally published in Woman’s Day, 4/3/01