Author, mother forge new bonds over bridge ladies, book
WOODBRIDGE >> Once a week for more than 50 years, a group of friends — “the bridge ladies” — have gathered around a table in each others’ homes to play cards and forget about their troubles for a while.
Betsy Lerner, the daughter of one of those “ladies,” Roslyn Lerner of Woodbridge, has been observing this ritual all her life.
When she was a child, as she wrote in her book “The Bridge Ladies” (Harper Wave), “I loved greeting them at the door” in their fine clothes and watching them assemble at the table with their cigarette packs, scoring pad and crystal dishes of candy.”
But when she was a rebellious teenager during the 1970s, she would “make myself scarce” whenever they came over. “They were square. They didn’t work, didn’t seem to get that feminism was taking over the world.”
And yet when Lerner moved from New York City back to New Haven 15 years ago because her husband had taken a job here, she was touched by how the ladies individually braved bad winter weather to comfort her mother when she was recuperating from surgery.
For several days of that time in January 2013, Lerner stayed at her mother’s home to help her out. “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to staying with my mother,” she wrote, because they weren’t close then and had been through decades of tension and misunderstanding.
But something was changing. Lerner had been living nearby when her father, Howard Lerner, grew ill and died. She became more sympathetic toward her mom, now a widow.
Meanwhile, Lerner, who had already written two books, realized “the bridge ladies” might be a compelling topic for a book.
“I thought to myself: ‘How many clubs exist over a time like this?’” Lerner told me when I interviewed her recently at her mother’s house.
And so three years ago she asked the ladies if she could sit in on their games, listen to their conversations as they played and watch the group dynamic.
However, she told me, “Nothing seemed to happen when they played.” As she wrote in her book, the ladies had an unwritten rule: “Thou shalt not pry; thou shalt not reveal; thou shalt not share.”
Their pains were private. Lerner learned, she wrote, “their reticence is largely generational. For them, the word ‘share’ meant splitting a sandwich, not automatically opening up about your life.”
But the ladies, including Lerner’s mother, had also agreed to let Lerner interview them one-on-one in their homes. And slowly, they began to reveal themselves.
“For about a year, I thought I was just an anthropologist,” she told me. “It really snuck up on me when I realized I was trying to connect with my mother.”
As Lerner began to ask more personal questions and the ladies reluctantly answered at least somewhat about what they had endured in their lives, “A world of empathy opened up for me. I started to see all of them very compassionately.”
When I noted the book project had brought her closer to her mother, Lerner said, “Oh yeah! It was a turning point.”
Naturally, there are still times when their daughter-mother conflict comes into view. While Lerner and I were talking in the kitchen, her mother came in and started rattling around among the pots and pans in a cabinet as she prepared the lunch she would serve before the bridge game.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Lerner asked in exasperation after watching her for about a minute.
When Betsy Lerner left the kitchen for a short time, I asked her mother how she feels about the book.
“I thought it was wonderful!” she said. “I thought it was because I’m biased. But everybody else likes it, so I guess it’s not that I’m biased.”
Then she added, “It was quite a process. I found it uncomfortable. I’m a very private person. I found all that revealing a little hard to take. I thought: ‘You don’t have to know that! None of your business!’”
When I was interviewing Betsy Lerner with her mother out of the kitchen, she acknowledged, “She said parts of it were very painful. But when I showed the manuscript to her, as I had told her I would, she read it and said, ‘You don’t have to change a word.’ To me, that was the biggest gesture of love she could make.” (She and her mother have never readily said to each other, “I love you.”)
Lerner also showed the manuscript to the other ladies: Bette Horowitz of Woodbridge, Jackie Podoloff of Bethany, Beatrice Phillips, formerly of Orange and West Haven, and Rhoda Meyers of Milford. (They retained five in the club in case one of them couldn’t make it for the game’s foursome). All of them said she didn’t have to change anything except for a few factual inaccuracies.
None of the ladies’ daughters or sons have learned to play bridge, except for Lerner, who took lessons in New York as part of her book project. Lerner told me she thinks the game is fading and will die out because younger people are too busy and spend so much time with TV and social media.
She thinks that’s a shame. “It’s a great game and I think it’s unique. It’s more complex than other card games. Things are hidden and every hand is different.”
She added, “It’s relaxing for me, even though it’s challenging and difficult. It’s the only thing I do in life where it crowds out other thoughts. When I’m playing, I don’t think about money or work or anything.”
When I asked Lerner why the ladies keep coming back every Monday afternoon, she said love of the game is part of it, along with “the strength of ritual.” But she noted, “It’s friendship above ritual. They have a shared history. Most of them knew each other before they had babies! They’ve seen their lives unfold. They’ve known their kids, their husbands, how and when they lost them (Phillips, Horowitz and Meyers also are widows). They went to their bar mitzvahs, weddings and major birthdays. They bear witness to each others’ lives.”
Shortly before the ladies arrived for lunch and the game, I asked Lerner what was the most important lesson she learned from doing the book. Right away she replied, “That it’s not too late to connect with your mother, if you have a fraught relationship. I’ve talked to so many mothers and daughters; they really want to connect. That desire is enormous.”
She noted, “The reason for the conflict is so much about generational misunderstanding.” Lerner said this was especially true for her generation vs. that of their parents.
“They all wanted us to get a husband because that is how they survived,” she said. “Anything we did that stepped out of line was threatening and upsetting to them. We all benefited from sex and drugs and rock ’n‘ roll. They didn’t understand any of that.”
As the doorbell began to ring, Betsy Lerner told me some sad news: Phillips recently moved to Florida to be near family members. The club has lost a longtime member. If one of the remaining four can’t make it, Betsy or another occasional participant fill in.
They were meeting on a Tuesday, breaking tradition, because July 4 was on a Monday. “Nobody wanted to miss a game,” Betsy told me.
After we sat down at the lunch table, I asked the ladies what keeps them coming back. “It’s the friendships,” Podoloff said. “It’s a wonderful group to be with. We’re always learning something from each other.”
Horowitz, who founded the club with Podoloff 55 years ago, said, “Whatever’s happening in life, if it’s dreadful, I can forget for a little while and participate in the game and not worry about what’s bothering me.”
Meyers said, “It’s a very important way to start the week. If it’s Monday, it’s time for the game. It’s part of our lives.”
Contact Randall Beach at email@example.com or 203-680-9345.