They say you can’t go home again, but that’s exactly what Betsy Lerner did… albeit reluctantly. Decades after leaving Connecticut for college, the literary agent and author found herself back in her native New Haven, living near her mother — something she swore would never happen again.
Being in such close proximity to her widowed mother, with whom she had always had a strained relationship, may have put Lerner over the edge if not for two things. One was going back into psychotherapy. The other was learning to play Bridge.
Bridge turned out to be more than a card game and mind-sharpening pastime. It was an entree into her mother’s life and that of four of her lifelong friends, women Lerner had always referred to simply as the Bridge Ladies but had never taken any interest in getting to know.
Never in a million years would Lerner have imagined herself lunching and playing cards weekly with these octogenarians, let alone being fascinated by their life stories.
“After I sat in on three Bridge lunches, I felt an incredible affinity to these ladies,” Lerner told The Times of Israel about the genesis of her new memoir, “The Bridge Ladies,” published this week in time for Mother’s Day.
Lerner, a literary agent and author born into the Baby Boomer generation, admittedly never understood or appreciated the women of her mother’s generation. Growing up, these Jewish housewives who had never done paid work seemed boring, parochial and far too reserved to Lerner as the women’s movement ushered in feminism, independence and birth control.
Over the course of three years of Bridge games and interviews, the author began to get a sense of the Bridge Ladies: Roz Lerner, Bea Phillips, Bette Horowitz, Jackie Podoloff, and Rhoda Meyers.
Compared to what Lerner was able to draw out of friends her own age (55), these older women spilled very few beans.
“They don’t reveal a lot, but I was fascinated by how they comport themselves. It did become frustrating when the women didn’t open up more, but I did understand their essence. There was some stuff that they told me off the record, as well,” Lerner said.
As difficult as it may have been to get the Bridge Ladies to dish, the author did end up with enough material to make for an enjoyable and enlightening narrative about what makes the women tick.
‘The beauty of Bridge is that all regular business falls away… It’s a way to be with other people but not have to talk’
One of Lerner’s biggest discoveries was that though these ladies were born too early to benefit from the women’s movement, they didn’t feel particularly cheated. Although they were all university educated and some had professional aspirations, all of them ended up becoming primarily wives and mothers — and none of them had any major regrets about how their lives turned out.
The author was surprised that although her mother and her friends have known each other for more than 50 years, they have rarely revealed their private thoughts or business in conversation over weekly lunches and Bridge games. The women always find what to talk about, but it’s never too personal, and it’s most definitely not political. The banter over the cards rarely veers beyond comments on the game itself.
“The beauty of Bridge is that all regular business falls away. You have to concentrate really hard and it’s totally engaging. It’s social, but not too social. It’s a way to be with other people but not have to talk,” Lerner explained.
At the core of “The Bridge Ladies” is Lerner’s reconciliation with her mother Roz.
“I wouldn’t have done this project had I known at the outset it would end up being about my mother and my finding out who she really is,” Lerner said.
Lerner thought her mother had never grieved, but it turned out she’d been grieving all her life
“Most people would say it was obvious that this was the heart of the story, but I guess I had a blind spot about this. It’s surprising because usually one of my strengths in my work over the years [as a literary editor and agent] has been pointing to what something is really about,” she added.
The middle daughter of three, Lerner always felt like the rebellious black sheep of her family. As someone living with bipolar disorder, it was comforting for her to finally learn about her mother’s serious postpartum depression. Only now does Lerner realize that her mother had actually understood what she was going through as a young adult when her condition was not yet fully under control with medication.
Over the years, Lerner was stymied by her mother’s apparent lack of emotional response to events. Lerner knew she had a younger sister who died, but her mother had never spoken about her or what happened. When she finally mustered the courage to ask, her mother opened up.
Lerner had thought her mother had never grieved, but it turned out she’d been grieving all her life.
“This is the most my mother has ever told me. It’s just a few sentences, but it feels like the world,” Lerner wrote about her mother sharing that she had a sense that little Barbara, who died at age two, would have grown up to be a fantastic person.
One might think by the time Lerner was a middle-aged mother herself (she has a teenage daughter), she would have gained some perspective on her mother and what shaped her. But it really wasn’t until Lerner embarked on this memoir project that she even tried to put herself in her mother’s position.
“It’s true that I never put myself in my mom’s shoes. But she never showed them to me,” she asserts.
This family narrative is universal, but also contains an inescapable Jewish vein throughout. Judaism isn’t exactly a topic of discussion, but the story takes place in an almost exclusively Jewish milieu. The women came of age in an era of institutionalized anti-Semitism in the United States, a time when Jews still socialized mainly among themselves.
‘Their lives don’t really go past the Jewish center, the temple and the Jewish country club’
“Their lives don’t really go past the Jewish center, the temple and the Jewish country club,” Lerner observed.
Roz, who had socialist affinities in her youth, is presented as a strongly cultural Jew who draws sustenance from her Jewish community. In the book, she is constantly preparing traditional foods for all the Jewish holidays (which Lerner does not celebrate at her own home). The fact that her daughter has neither interest in nor proclivity for making gefilte fish and the like is a source of disappointment for Roz.
Lerner almost glosses over the fact that she married a Catholic man and doesn’t discuss her mother’s reaction to this in the book.
“I married at 30, so I think my parents were just relieved I got married at all. My mom liked my husband from the beginning because he is an intellectual. My father appreciated his work ethic. Admittedly, the religious issue would likely have been a bigger deal had I married at a younger age, as my sisters did,” Lerner said.
Friends for half a century, the Bridge Ladies had a special something binding them together and Lerner wanted to discover what it was. She knew it had to be more than just Bridge.
In the process of writing her book Lerner figured it out, coming to understand how she had known these remarkable women all her life without really knowing them. It was a journey as much about her own edification as it was about highlighting their strength of character and giving them a voice.
Having shed some light on their lives and brought them out of obscurity, Lerner reflected, “These are women who never had their 15 minutes [of fame]. They didn’t even have one minute.”