Who’s the Idiot Now? In My Family, We Play the Lottery to Win

by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When my mom asked me last week if I wanted her to buy me a Powerball ticket, with the pot valued at 500 million dollars, I said yes.

I said yes because: Why not? And what if?

But I also said yes because my family has a long history of believing in the magic of the lottery.

My grandmother has had a thing for scratch tickets ever since I can remember. She and her best friend sometimes still go from place to place, buying $1, $5, and $10 cards. When we were little, my brother and I used to sit in the car with her as she fished out a quarter and scratched off the silver coating. She would often let us scratch them with her. Sometimes she’d tell us we could split the prize. Her car was littered with old scratchies, losers strewn about the floor, winners tucked, for safe keeping, in the center console.

Early on, I learned the tricks of the trade for playing the scratch lotto. If you buy a $1 ticket, you’re only in it for a good time. At best, you’re looking at a “Free Ticket” or a $3 jackpot. To have a shot at really making money, you need to buy $10 cards. You should always buy more than one ticket of one game at a time. My grandmother likes to run them in packs of three. If you buy three and you don’t win, consider buying three more. The roll is due. If the winning number on the card is a 23 and you keep unveiling numbers like 22 and 24, you barely need to keep scratching to find out it’s a loser. I learned that one on my own, watching from the backseat, checking my grandmother’s losing cards in the hopes she missed something. She never missed something. Still doesn’t.

People make fun of her. They tell her the lottery is an “idiot tax;” that she’s wasting her time and money. But the joke is on them because she wins! Really wins! Sometimes it’s just a few bucks, sometimes it’s $500. And we grandchildren benefit from a trickle down effect. The only time I really gambled in Vegas, I was up $300 when I left. All from slots. I know the joy of seeing the machine spin and spin and then click. right. into. place. My brother has only bought one lottery ticket in his life. $500. And years ago, my cousin bought his own first car thanks to the $10,000 he got on…yep, a scratch off.

But my grandmother is the only one that can do it consistently. Fifty or a five hundred bucks here, an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World there.

And when we were in Orlando in April of 1997, it didn’t feel like an idiot tax. I was 14 years old, and it was the first time we’d all been on a plane in years. The two hotels rooms we had were more luxurious than anywhere I’d ever been. We had queen beds with high-thread count sheets and nice views. We rode both Space and Splash Mountain. We ate turkey legs and ice cream. We bought souvenirs and took pictures with cartoon characters.

We were never rich growing up, but we felt rich that week at the happiest place on earth. We could do anything we wanted, have anything we wanted for those seven days. It wasn’t perfect. I’m sure my brother and I bickered. I’m sure someone pitched a fit about something. At the age of 14, I, most assuredly, must have called someone in my family a “loser.”

But I don’t remember any of that. I just remember my mom helping me pop my ears when the plane was landing. And the terrified look on my grandmother’s face as we headed down Splash Mountain. I remember the vacation song my mom made up and sang the whole time. I will sing it on vacation with my own children one day, it is so embedded into our family lore.

And all of this because of a scratch ticket. All of it because my grandmother took a chance on a ten dollar ticket.

Sure, my grandmother often takes a chance on ten dollar tickets. If I’m being honest, my grandmother has most likely only broken even over the course of her life, when you factor in the routine losses necessary for a win history like she has. She may even be in the negatives.

In fact, years after we went to Disney World, I figured out that the all expenses paid trip was for two — not for four. I don’t know how my mom and grandma afforded the second hotel room, the third and fourth tickets to all the parks, and the two extra flights. My guess is that they saved up for months, that they went without things they needed, that they did anything they could to bridge the gap. The scratch ticket only got half of us there. My mom and grandma did the rest.

So maybe the lottery does cost us more money than it gives us but I have to say, I don’t think I care.

There is a real value in the joy of winning big and it is filled with unforgettable moments: The moment when you can’t believe the numbers you’re actually seeing. The moment when you give your grandmother a stack of lottery tickets for Christmas and see her cheerily look for a quarter. The moment when you find out, as a suburban kid in snowy Massachusetts, that you’re going to Orlando.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist. She’s never received a piece of fan mail, but don’t let that stop you from considering it.