AUGUST 24, 2016
THE ANXIETY I FELT in simply holding Betsy Lerner’s new memoir The Bridge Ladies in my hands would have interested any number of research psychologists, in addition to my own therapist of yore.
I’d heard about the book long before it was published via a Facebook post. Initially, I was thrilled. I’ve been a fan of Lerner’s work for many years. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (2000), is a cheeky, no-holds-barred gem that belongs on the bookshelf of every writer. And as someone who’s been on a diet or starting a diet tomorrow since 1974, losing and regaining the same 20 pounds over and over again, I dropped everything and speed-read her blistering first memoir, Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories (2004).
But I wasn’t so sure about The Bridge Ladies. It chronicles the three years Lerner spent sitting in on her mother’s regular Monday afternoon bridge game, in an effort to better understand her mother and her world, and perhaps strengthen their somewhat frayed bond.
Maureen Corrigan, reviewing the book for NPR, called this kind of aging boomer memoir an “extreme adventure [of caring for and reconnecting with their elderly parents],” and the trepidation I felt exposing myself to its dangers felt like extreme adventuring, indeed. Years ago, I found myself with a niche-writing specialty, trying out action sports — street-luging, base-jumping, heli-skiing, and spelunking — for glossy travel mags. I went to flying trapeze school. I became a certified shark handler. None of those things felt as scary as taking a deep dive with Lerner into those swirling, emotionally fraught maternal waters. I ordered the book on Amazon, then canceled my order, then ordered it again. Then, I ate some corn chips.
As a child, I was fascinated with the Bridge Ladies. They showed up regularly at our house, their hair frosted, their nylons shimmery, carrying patent leather pocketbooks with clasps as round as marbles. I loved greeting them at the door, hanging up their coats in our front hall closet, where I often played inside the fold of my mother’s mink.
That childhood wonder didn’t last, of course. Lerner grew into a hostile, eye-rolling, pot-smoking teen who fled her childhood New Haven suburb for New York City, where, after a rocky few years in which she struggled with depression, she received an MFA in poetry from Columbia and forged a Triple Crown–winning literary career as a successful writer, editor, and agent. She married and gave birth to a daughter. But when her husband was offered a good job at Yale University Press in New Haven, Lerner found herself leaving Manhattan to live a scant five miles from the house she grew up in, and in which Roz, her 83-year-old mother, still lives.
The ladies of Roz Lerner’s half-century-old bridge club are all Jewish and married to Jewish men, and with the exception of one of them, never worked outside the home. Their primary goal for their daughters — a goal formed primarily in the spirit of love, I have to believe, and wanting the best for their girls — was for them to find nice Jewish boys to marry. For these women, born and raised in the Depression, therein rested the only safety and security the world had to offer.
How does a mother increase the odds of such a thing as mysterious and unreliable as love? The only option, in addition to making sure her girl earns the grades required for admittance to a good college, where she will be able to position herself beneath the noses of eligible men on a daily basis, is to carefully, compulsively oversee the care and feeding of her main female asset, her looks, specifically her “figure.”
Beauty is only skin deep, said few mothers ever.
The collateral damage of this well-meaning approach is to saddle your girl with lifelong body issues and convey to her that however smart, funny, creative, brave, or original she might be, none of it matters more than wearing a size six. (Pass the guacamole, please.)
To fully understand the courage of Lerner’s undertaking it pays to read Food and Loathing. Lerner’s complicated relationship with Roz goes back to her preteen years when she was already overweight and her mother was engaged in a full-court press to make a thin, willowy silk purse out of a sturdy, wise-cracking sow’s ear. There were the requisite tortuous shopping trips and the lectures, where Roz tried to instruct Betsy on the importance of hiding her figure flaws, maximizing her assets, and pulling herself together. Watching one’s figure was a full time occupation. At the beautiful wedding of Lerner’s older sister, “even the Sweet’n Lo packets were fitted into decorative envelopes.” God forbid you should go crazy at this once-in-a-lifetime occasion and stir a teaspoon of sugar (16 calories) into your coffee.
In a blackly comic passage from Food and Loathing, Lerner chronicles her the undiagnosed depression she suffered as a young adult, and the resulting stint at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Her parents are good people. As anguished as they are dutiful, they show up for family therapy, despite their discomfort. Roz, eager to help her daughter however she can, asks what she can bring her or buy her. Anything, anything. Lerner asks for black or gray sweatpants; Roz returns with the more flattering turquoise and cherry red. “Couldn’t she just this once bring what I asked for?” Lerner asks. “Did I have to ‘maximize my looks’ for the other mental patients and the orderlies? Why now, when I was a captive on the locked ward of a loony bin, did my mother feel the need to reassert her ideas about color?”
Roz! How could you? But, here’s the thing. Even though I know better, I would have totally done the same thing, or something similar. I have a daughter a little younger than Lerner was during her months on the psych ward. If she asked me to bring one of her ironic hipster XXL T-shirts from home (say, the truly hideous pepperoni-pizza-in-the-shape-of-a-cat shirt), I would have chosen something “nicer” (really, anything else), and she would have had the same reaction as did Lerner.
(You know what I really like to binge on? Stale red licorice. Someone once told me that if you like to eat tough, chewy things, it’s a sign of suppressed rage.)
The unsettling thing about all this is that my mother, born in 1931, a year earlier than Roz Lerner, seemed to have read the same parenting manual. Even though I hail from Southern California gentiles, my stay-at-home Episcopalian mother wanted the same thing that the bridge ladies wanted for their girls: for me to marry a nice Jewish doctor.
I wasn’t overweight, but I weighed more than my small-boned mother did. At 12, I was already 5’7”. My mother consulted my pediatrician to see if there was any way to retard my growth. She considered his half-joking suggestion that I start smoking. She envisioned me eventually being as tall as my father — 6’2” (I topped out at 5’8”). She saw my long, strong arms and muscular thighs as fat, and convinced me that I needed to lose 20 pounds. (Every female on God’s green earth could stand to lose 20 pounds, according to my mother.) I look at pictures of me now, 14 in a yellow bikini, and I see a tall girl who’s maybe a little “broad in the beam” (another of my mother’s favorite descriptors), but who has a pretty waist, slender arms, strong legs, and is in no way discernibly overweight.
Our Greatest Generation mothers seemed to have missed the memo: it’s because they were so well-nourished during their post–World War II pregnancies that we baby boomers are taller and bigger, broader of shoulder, larger of foot. Louder, with bigger appetites and emotions. Loud and big and unladylike and rebellious and competitive.
“Betsy, you go too far!” her mother likes to say. My mother said the same thing.
(I just went down to the kitchen and ate three peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, then drank out of the milk carton until the cold hurt my throat.)
Part of Lerner’s mission is to get the ladies to confess, to talk about things they’ve never discussed with each other, the kinds of things we boomers share with our girlfriends — or even people we know a little from hot yoga — without giving it a thought. Fertility issues, cheating boyfriends/husbands, money worries, the problems of our kids and aging parents both, whether or not to get a Brazilian. She meets with a lot of resistance: “… I discovered that they never trash talk anyone, never talk about something that bothers them, and never share a deep feeling.” Lerner’s efforts to try get them to open up provides a lot of the book’s hilarity, and inspires her mother to say for the umpteenth time, “Betsy, now you’ve gone too far.”
Lerner takes great care distinguishing the bridge ladies from one another. There is outspoken, confident Rhoda, who lives in a condo and makes a kugel to die for, and is the only one among the widows who has “a gentleman friend”; feisty outlier Bea, also a condo dweller, who wears purple metallic tennis shoes, crystal bracelets, call the movies “the flicks,” and appears to have no fucks left to give; elegant Bette, once an aspiring actress who lives in a spotless midcentury that sounds straight out of Mad Men with Arthur, the man who rescued her from having ambition; reserved, mysterious Jackie, the group’s great beauty, who no longer drives, and is chauffeured around by her husband, Dick, a Yale alum who is unabashed in saying he married her because “I wanted the most beautiful woman in the room”; and pragmatic, restrained Roz, who reads The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, and The Atlantic and gives Lerner “the maternal once over” every time she enters the room.
The one thing they all have in common, beside Judaism, intact marriages, and a devotion to accessorizing, is raising children who made them want to tear their hair out (in private, obvs):
In just one generation, the world they knew would radically change Bridge daughters, collectively: some married Jewish men, some intermarried, some divorced, some, god-forbid, did not marry. We would not return their serve, We got birth control and advanced degrees, slept with men we never intended to procreate with, moved to big cities, and lived on our own. If anything, I defined myself in fierce opposition to my mother, putting career and personal fulfillment over marriage and children.
Lerner begins by sitting and watching them play, but eventually, she starts taking lessons herself, and learns immediately that the intellectual demands of the game are prodigious. The reader accompanies her to the Manhattan Bridge Club, where she begins to explain (or tries to) how the whole bridge thing works. I still don’t get it, but Lerner keeps on keeping on.
She reminds us that card playing, bridge in particular, was the cable TV of its time. In the 1930s and 1940s, bridge matches were broadcast on the radio, and almost half of all American households contained one bridge player.
My mother was also into cards. She played pinochle, and blackjack during my parents’ yearly trips to Vegas. My father called her a card shark, was proud of her ability to count cards and win money. I never caught the bug, associating it as I did with something you did when you were sick or bored. Once, I asked my mother why she and her lady friends played cards so much and she said, “You can really show off your smarts!” Like so many things she said I found this to be completely incomprehensible. It was only as an adult, after she died, that I thought I gleaned her implication. Only in a card game, where nothing was at stake, did she feel she could cut loose with her obvious intelligence. You can see this is true for the bridge ladies, too, in the way they confidently play their hands.
Reading The Bridge Ladies sent me to the market for a package of Gummy Worms and a king-sized PayDay for another reason. When I was deep into my own hostile, eye-rolling, pot-smoking teen years, my mother died. December of my freshman year in college, she was diagnosed with a stage-four brain tumor and by March she was dead. I was 17 and she was 46. I am an only child. Within a year my reticent father remarried. Just like that, I was alone in the world. It took a good 10 years of therapy to convince me that I didn’t kill my mother by calling her a bitch that one time.
I’ve spent a good wedge of my adult daydreams wondering what it would have been like knowing her as an adult. I’ve fantasized that we would have become good girlfriends. If she were alive, I’d told myself, we would have a good laugh over that trip to the pediatrician when I was 12. She would admit she didn’t know what she was thinking; that of course I was perfect and beautiful just the way I was. She would forgive me my disastrous marriages, my half-assed attempts at domesticity, my lack of respect for matching china, my insistence on drinking whole milk instead of non-fat. And maybe by now I would have learned to play pinochle.
Except none of that would have happened, of course, and reading The Bridge Ladies was a reminder.
In one scene, Lerner helps her mother make homemade gefilte fish for the Seder. In the kitchen together, Lerner complains about the smell:
My mother cranks open a window, tacit acknowledgement of the fish stink.
“You take a handful,” my mother says, reaching into the fish matzoh meal mixture, “and pat it like so, into ball.”
Ground, the fish looks like brains. “There’s no way I’m touching that.”
“Why don’t you go home, you look exhausted,” my mother says, though I have clearly exhausted her patience. I know this was supposed to be some big bonding opportunity and I want to get into the spirit, but it’s too artificial. We both know I’m not going to make gefilte fish, it’s doubtful I’ll even make a Seder.
Lerner’s father died a decade ago, and Roz, the dependent wife and mother, has been on her own ever since. This is no small thing. Age kicks our ass. Roz still plays bridge every Monday, still shows up with her hair done, her nails manicured, the proper bracelets and handbag. You’ve seriously got to admire her discipline and self-respect. Roz and Betsy sometimes play bridge together, at a nearby senior center.
After one such game, Roz said, “You were really good, Betsy. You’re a lot better than you think you are.”
I don’t think you can ask for much more than that, but we daughters always do.
The author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, Karen Karbo is most well-known for her Kick Ass Women series, the most recent of which is Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life, and her new book, In Praise of Difficult Women.