As the story goes, I started playing the card game, bridge, in utero. My mom, having relocated in 1978 to a new town with her husband and three-year-old daughter, got pregnant and started taking bridge lessons at about the same time.
Mary, Penny, Sandy, and Rosemary – four baby-boomers – played cards, provided each other emotional support, shared parenting stories, and got some independence from their families at their weekly card games. As the story continues, I became a very verbal toddler, way past the socially-acceptable age to be breastfeeding, demanding to “nurse” while the women continued to play bridge on a regular basis. I would crawl into my mom’s lap, nestle into her bosom and slip into oxytocin ecstasy as I interrupted my mother’s play.
While I don’t remember my introduction to bridge, I vividly recall my mother’s devotion to her group during my early childhood. On Thursday afternoons, my mom would collect different bottles of flavored seltzer and lug the ancient card table from our basement to our living room in preparation for her evening. While I could never discern much of a difference between cranberry seltzer and the lemon-lime flavor, my mother’s bridge friends all had favorites that needed to be represented. This was her ritual and no one questioned it or pitched in to help. A couple of hours later, with the couches moved back and the foldable chairs pulled close, the women would settle in.
From upstairs in my bedroom, I would listen to their conversations with rapture and annoyance. These women met in a tribal manner to deal cards and navigate life. They spoke in parentheses – all side thoughts and whispers. Their laughs oscillated between guffaws and giggles.
I distinctly remember searching the sacred trove of the desk where my mother kept her bridge cards looking for clues to their secrets. She was busy in the kitchen and I believed that I could finally understand the game that lured her away from her family, more powerfully than any religious sermon or political speech ever could.
I searched through drawers of playing cards and scratched-out scorecards, only stopping when I found, instead, my mother’s adolescent journal detailing the shooting of JFK. This writing intimidated me with its gravity and importance. It seemed fitting that I would find this private piece of my mother’s thoughts in the same desk that held her bridge cards. I retreated from both and felt appeased to admire from afar.
Every week, my mom played bridge with these same women as I journeyed from childhood to adulthood to parenthood. She played with them for 35 years, 1,820 weeks, probably close to 8,000 games. And then, Rosemary died. Cancer ate at her brain until she could no long fend it off. Cancer stole my mother’s friend and the steadfast fixture of her bridge table.
Around the time of Rosemary’s death, I started playing with my own bridge group. I wrote a post in our neighborhood online forum asking for a local card shark to give us some pointers. Immediately, a neighbor whom I had never met, responded: “I play. How advanced are you all?”
I wrote back: “Ha! Absolute beginners. My mom has been in a bridge group for years and she’s given us two lessons. But she lives in NJ and is unavailable most of the time to help. We are pretty unbelievably terrible.”
Iris replied: “What type of bridge does she play? Old-time Goren or the new stuff?”
My answer: “I’m pretty sure it must be old-time. We are learning the most basic conventions. I was brought up watching my mom play bridge with some of her closest friends. They would stay up late and talk long past my bedtime. My friends don’t really care about getting good at cards but we relish the idea of a game that brings us together like that!”
That hooked Iris: “I know exactly what you mean. I play in groups like that. If I can help, I will be there.”
Bridge isn’t exactly popular these days. There aren’t a lot of clubs or coaches offering support to a fledgling group. In fact, it can be a little bit embarrassing to admit my weekly Tuesday night plans to most of my other friends. At first, people are aghast (“You play bridge?!”). Next, they might be sort of judgmental (“Isn’t that what my grandmother plays?”). Then, they actually seem to be jealous (“Well, if you ever need a sub…”). We don’t care about criticism and we don’t want substitutes.
Jess, Sarah, Jess, and Kathy – four Generation X’ers – play cards, provide each other emotional support, share parenting stories, and get some independence from our families each week. We sit down and we deal out much more than tricks. We’re creating a bond that goes deeper than our game.
The pillars of our table are our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers who played the game before us; women who lived in a time when words were suppressed and roles were repressed and found solace in coming together weekly around a card table.
These same women paved the way through the women’s liberation movement to the gender equality standards we have today. They created a better world for working wives and mothers. They made political and social change through steadfast solidarity and commitment – similar to the devotion shown to the game, friendship, and honor at the bridge table. Every time I sit down, I think of these women who came before me and feel more connected to my past as I hold 13 cards in my hands and count my points.
Last week, when my friends and I were stumped by a play, I frantically called my mom. When she didn’t answer, I texted: “Emergency bridge question, call ASAP.” When she still didn’t respond, I felt deep, remarkable grief at the loss of our friend, Rosemary. I told my friends that, if she were still alive, she would be the one I would call next. She was a second mother to me, a best friend to my mom, a woman to respect.
Over the little square table, my mother built a bridge between cards dealt and lives led. Now, I am doing the same, as a way to honor those who came before, to cherish those I’m with now, and to continue the path for women of the future.