Old age is nothing if not managing losses: physical ability, appearance, memory, spouses, friends, economic independence, and finally freedom.
As a child, Betsy Lerner was fascinated by the Bridge Ladies, who would show up at her house, “their hair frosted, their nylons shimmery”, and settle down to play Bridge, “communing in their strange language of bids and tricks”. But as she got older, like most teens, she wanted to be different, she hated life in the suburbs, dreamt of living in New York, and saw the Bridge Ladies as “conventional”, nothing more than mothers, daughters and wives. In her forties, she finally returns to New Haven “crucible of my pain”, where her mother still lives on her own. With her mother recovering from surgery, the Bridge Ladies take turns to come by every day, and Lerner marvels at their friendship and seeks to understand their relationships, their lives, their game.
“Friendships now are often made of geographic convenience and circumstance, not the deeper bonds of religion and community. Facebook may connect us across the world and throughout eternity, but it won’t deliver a pot roast.”
But it is also very much an exploration of her own relationship with her mother, which has been a rocky one, where they “circled each other like wary boxers”.
Lerner at first just sits in on their game, watching, learning, listening to their conversations. But then she starts to learn the game on her own, discovering it to be far more difficult than she had imagined.
I wanted to read this book as I had enjoyed Lerner’s Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories. She is remarkably honest about her life, and also is funny. Not easy to do when one is talking about eating disorders and depression, but she still managed to do that. And Lerner continues to write candidly about her life and her relationship with her mother, and somehow manages to get the Bridge Ladies to open up about their lives, their families.
Which is more difficult than it sounds, because one fascinating thing about this group of Bridge Ladies, although they have known each other for years and meet regularly, is that they never really open up about things that bother them.
“I discovered that they never trash anyone, never talk about something that bothers them, and never share a deep feeling.”
So somehow Lerner manages to embed herself into their lives, getting them to talk to her about how they met their husbands, their marriages, their children, even things like birth control and infertility. You really have to admire Lerner for that.
“I had been terrified that I wouldn’t take to motherhood. I was most paranoid about not being able to hear the baby cry out in the night. What if I slept too deeply, or didn’t have that sixth sense, the so-called maternal instinct?”
I still remain clueless about Bridge and have no desire to take it up. But I am so glad I read this book. It made me miss my mother, who lives half a world away in Singapore. When I next see her, I’m definitely going to pass this book onto her. The Bridge Ladies was wonderfully written, funny and sad, and full of heart.
Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees and Food and Loathing. She is a recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and the Tony Godwin Prize for Editors, and was selected as one of PEN’s Emerging Writers. Lerner is a partner with the literary agency Dunow, Carlson & Lerner and resides in New Haven, Connecticut.