My mother used to play Bridge weekly with her three closest friends, women I called "Aunt" even though we bore no blood relation. I both loved and hated coming home from school on bridge afternoons "“ I got quizzed on my day, in stereo, then squared. Little did I realize that the Bridge club was a near universal experience for women of a certain era and station.
Betsy Lerner's The Bridge Ladies, a Best of the Month book for May, took me right back to my childhood, to Aunt Evvie, Aunt Gert and Aunt Muriel. Unlike me, Lerner had the chance to sit in, as an adult, on the Bridge ladies and spend time interviewing and getting to know them. In the process, she got to know a lot about herself, and about how mothers and daughters do and don't always get along.
Here's a slice of her experience:
She was sitting in the front row. Arms and legs were tightly crossed, a lumpy purse in her lap. Her face was creased with the deep lines of age. She looked to be in her eighties, maybe older. I was on a book tour in Florida and met many octogenarians along the way; among other things my book is about five women who have been playing Bridge for over fifty years, all in their eighties. I also play Bridge at a senior center. Elderly folks are my peeps. But this woman stared straight ahead, didn't smile, didn't move. She looked angry and every time I looked up to make eye contact with the audience, the way they teach you to, I landed on her and her frozen face.
After the reading, I signed books and chatted with people. Most want to tell you something about their lives and in the space of thirty minutes you are privileged to get these slivers of confession. Since my book is largely about mothers and daughters and my fraught relationship with my mom, many confide in me that their mothers constantly criticized them, they never got along, that their mothers drive them crazy, and we laugh and commiserate. Complaining about our mothers; it's the coin of our generation. Our mothers' lives were circumscribed. Most married at twenty and as virgins. The women in my mother's Bridge group didn't work and were financially dependent on their husbands. They lived their lives on the stages their husbands set. We, the mighty feminists, took them to task for their decisions. Bridge, country clubs, and cocktail parties were their realm. Ours, of course, was sex, drugs and rock and roll. Many people ask me which I think is better. Duh.
After all the people left the bookstore, the scowling woman in the front row approached. The set on her face hadn't changed. But I saw that she was holding my book to her chest. Then she stepped closer and said, "My daughter hates me." After so many conversations about how difficult it is for many of us to get along with our mothers, this sole voice. Many thoughts flooded through me. Had she been ultra-critical of her daughter? Had her face always telegraphed so much disapproval? Was her daughter a wild one, rebellious and angry herself? What was she thinking while I was reading? I felt under scrutiny and judged. But mostly, why was she telling me this now? "I hope your book will help me," she said. "You remind me of my daughter." This wasn't exactly a compliment, I could tell, but I also saw that she was in pain. I realized then that being hated is worse than hating. Hating is active and energizing and in some cases motivating. I hate her life! I'm getting out of here! Writing my book, I also realized that I had pinned much of my disappointment in myself on my mother. It was easier than blaming myself and I knew on some level that she would take it, be there on the other side of whatever conflict I was in the middle of.
For all of my reflection, for all the interviewing I had done with her and the Bridge Ladies, I never saw it as clearly as I did then with the woman standing in front of me. There is more pain than I ever imagined between mothers and daughters, not only in ours, the tell-all generation, but also in theirs, the silent generation. She thanked me, we shook hands. Waiting for my cab, I saw her in the parking lot. I waved but she didn't see me.
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