Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem
Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
Betsy Lerner, The Bridge Ladies
As a child, I thought of bridge as a mysterious game that parents played, in the afternoons when I was at school or in the evenings when I was in bed. The most complicated card games I knew were hearts, gin rummy, and cribbage. Recently, I became intrigued by the idea of bridge as mental exercise for my aging brain. My half-hearted attempt to learn the game met with failure, when the teacher at the community center recommended that I repeat the beginning course. This course was very basic; in fact, the teacher spent some time explaining that there are four suits in cards, two black and two red, and that the clubs look just like puppy paws.
What did I learn? I learned that: 1) I have no aptitude for bridge, probably because of my non-mathematical mind; 2) I’m too lazy to learn something new that’s difficult for me; 3) I have newfound respect for friends and family members who are proficient bridge players; and 4) I’d rather read a book.
Betsy Lerner is a braver woman than I. She becomes a regular attendee at her mother’s Monday afternoon bridge club for nearly three years, strengthening her connection with her mother, building friendships with the other octogenarian “Bridge Ladies” — and falling in love with the game of bridge. Lerner, a literary agent and poet, writes beautifully. Her story will resonate with mothers and daughters, bridge players or not. Lerner was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Bridge Ladies:
I found your book fascinating for many reasons, one being that both my mother and mother-in-law are avid bridge players. Until recently, I didn’t know anyone of my generation who played. (I think you and I are about the same age.) So I took a series of lessons and failed miserably. I just don’t get it. What do you think makes someone a good bridge player?
I think most people need some motivation to learn. Usually friends or spouses play and they don’t want to miss out. Unlike most card games, you probably should take lessons and you need to play a lot. And you’re right, there aren’t a lot of people out there. But there are bridge clubs in almost every city. I’m terrible at math, logic and have memory issues, but I love the game. People who are “naturals’ have an abundance of these skills. The rest of us plod along.
At first, you were bewildered by what you perceived the bridge ladies’ lack of warmth. As you got to know them better, you understood the reasons for their reticence to share personal information. Your idea of friendship and theirs seemed very different. Do you think they are typical of their generation — and if so, why?
I’m not sure I can make generalizations about women of their generation. I only know what I saw with the Bridge Ladies. That said, their generation is called “The Silent Generation.” They didn’t have a culture of therapy, confession, Oprah, openness. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard, you were meant to suffer in silence and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Bridge really did become a “bridge” between you and your mother, helping you to empathize with her. If you hadn’t had bridge to bring you together, is there anything else that you think would have done the job as well?
My daughter. They love each other so much and my mom is enormously generous and supportive of my daughter. That melts me.
I think most women of our mothers’ generation learned to play bridge in college. Thinking back on my college experience — and those of my children — I can’t imagine bridge being part of it. I’m curious — in your exploration of the game, have you found that the game is starting to appeal to young people (college age and 20-somethings)? I’ve found it interesting that knitting seems newly popular among that age group.
My mom actually learned as a newlywed. She saw it as a way to enter social life. I now know quite a few people my age who learned in college or at home. There are even high school players and they’re good.
Many of my contemporaries are now taking up bridge. You were attracted to the game, I think, because it was a way to deepen your relationship with your mother. What kind of people are interested in learning bridge as midlife adults?
Mostly people who have always been curious about it for one reason or another and decided to take the plunge. Also, I think it attracts people with new found time on their hands: divorce, unemployment, widowhood, empty nest, all kinds of life transitions might be responsible for some people taking the plunge.
You mentioned on your blog that you recently participated in the National Bridge Championships in Reno. Wow! What led you to do that — and would you do it again?
I was really curious to see what it would be like and my mom quickly agreed to be my partner so we braved it. It was terrifying and fun in equal measures.
You also mentioned that you brought copies of the book to the Bridge Ladies, and as expected, the reaction was muted. Have you had any more feedback? What does your mother think?
The ladies gave me the greatest compliment by saying that I “got them.” Parts of the book are certainly painful for my mom, but she didn’t ask me to change a word. She has always been my biggest booster for the book.
One thing that occurred to me as I read your book was this: Women of our generation seem obsessed with staying young. Women of our mothers’ age seem comfortable with who they are and aren’t interested in youth culture, although they aren’t crazy about the aging process. (As you say, “Old age is nothing if not managing losses . . .) They don’t care about keeping up with pop culture or technology. I see the merits of both attitudes — why should I care who the latest 20-something pop singer is, for example? But I feel like older people could really enrich their lives by embracing the wonders of modern technology. What do you think?
I think it’s crucial to stay current with technology and the world unless you an artist or a hermit. You don’t need to know Justin Bieber songs, but once you let the world pass you by you lose some vitality, and then more. Some of my octogenarian friends use their computers, and iphones and stay up on things and stay involved, and they are my role models. Others are retreating.
What do you think is the audience for your book? I’m sure as an agent, you always envision who would be the buyers/readers of a particular book. Do you imagine women of the “Greatest Generation” reading it?
It’s mostly for mothers and daughters, especially boomer daughters. One friend called it “The Jew Luck Club.”
One of the many things I really appreciated about The Bridge Ladies was the structure. I like how each chapter has an appropriate title and is almost an essay unto itself. Did you start out writing the book this way, or did you begin with a more linear narrative?
THANK YOU. I restructured the book over and over. It was a huge challenge to manage the four strands of the story (the stories of the ladies, the Monday bridge games, my relationship with my mother, and learning how to play). I’ve always loved coming up with chapter titles — I think of them like poem titles and hope they signal the theme or spirit of the chapter.
I recommend listening to Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Bridge Ladies on NPR, and also visiting Betsy Lerner’s terrific blog.
Happy Mother’s Day!