- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The wisecracks begin to flow as soon as the hands are dealt, a banter familiar to any card player.

“Sit down, shut up and deal.”

“Lunch was good. The cards, not so much.”

“If I can’t deal myself a good hand, I think I might go home.”

Sounds like poker night for the boys, but the game is bridge, ladies and gentlemen. The “girls,” as the players call themselves, are in their 80s and 90s. And the game has been going on for decades, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1jC2Ba1 ) reported.

Way back in 1954 - or possibly 1960 (memories differ) - nine women who lived near each other in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood decided to form a bridge club. That was the thing that young, middle-class, stay-at-home moms did when a president named Eisenhower was in office and “I Love Lucy” was on the air.

As the decades rolled by, women flocked into the workforce and fewer people had time for bridge.

But once a month, every month, the Highland Park group kept shuffling and dealing, the game outlasting most of their husbands and even a few post-marriage romances.

“We’ve lost children. We’ve lost husbands,” said Eileen Garelick, 89.

“I had a significant other. He just passed away,” said Shirley Silberman, 94.

Through the years, the club members have celebrated and mourned most of the milestones of life - weddings, grandchildren, birthdays - and supported each other through death and disease.

“It was a bridge club and an eating club. It was also a support group,” said Eunice Gelb, 85.

“We liked each other. We loved each other. We never had an argument with each other in this club ever,” Betty Falk said.

Club members frequently finish each other’s sentences and use each other as straight men. The jokers at this card game aren’t in the deck - they’re seated at the tables.

When asked if any of them went through a divorce, Harriet Levy said, “We might have wanted to be.”

“Maybe murder, but no divorces,” said Bonnie Abrahamson, 84.

“Bridge is a game of strategy,” said Levy, who at 82 is described as the baby of the group.

“Now you tell me,” Gelb said.

“It isn’t complicated at all,” Falk said of the game.

It takes only “about 20 years” to learn, Levy said.

“We don’t play that long. It’s more talk than anything else,” said Betty Sweet, 89.

About what?

“Everything,” Sweet said.

“Nothing. We talk about the kids and the grandkids,” Garelick said.

“Politics,” Abrahamson said.

“Aches and kvetch,” Garelick said. “That’s spelled K-V-E-T-C-H.”

Bridge is considered one of the hardest card games to master. That seems to be what the members of this club like about it. They’ve taken it pretty seriously. Some members even took regular lessons to hone their skills.

And over the years, these card sharps say the cards have kept them sharp.

“I think you played bridge because it was challenging, and it was stimulating, and most of us had small kids,” Gelb said.

“And we were mindless,” Levy said.

“I played Bunco last night. That doesn’t take a brain at all,” Silberman said.

“That’s for me,” Garelick said.

But you can’t keep playing for more than a half century without some changes.

Some of the original members have died. A few have moved out of Highland Park or into assisted-living facilities.

The fancy evening meals the host would serve - salmon mousse, stuffed cabbage, Jell-O salad, Bundt cake - these days usually has given way to lunch at Champps, Axel’s, Olive Garden and other local restaurants, followed by an afternoon of cards.

They used to chip in 50 cents each for the pot that the top scorers would share. Now it’s a buck.

They don’t drink anything stronger than coffee or tea when they’re playing.

“We’d all fall asleep,” Levy said.

Other social activities that they enjoyed in their younger years - square dancing and bowling, canasta and mahjong - have largely fallen away, as have other bridge clubs.

“They died,” Garelick said.

“We’re not dead,” Levy said.

“As long as we’re around, we’ll be doing this,” Silberman said.

“I know some of the girls can’t wait for the club to meet every month,” said Sally Orren, 86, who is a member of other clubs so she can get a bridge fix at least once a week.

Levy said her daughter and son-in-law took bridge lessons but couldn’t find anyone else to play with until they visited a nursing home.

“They play bridge there,” she said.

“I know a woman who had Alzheimer’s. She played bridge,” Levy said. “I went to a party. She was going to be my bridge partner. I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ But she was terrific.”

“The older we get, we say, ‘What is trump?’ and ‘Who dealt?’ and ‘I can’t sit in the light, the light is in my eyes,’” Abrahamson said. “And for lunch, some people are, ‘What’s in this?’ ‘What do you mean what’s in this?’ ‘I can’t have that.’”

In a recent game, the girls were hosted by Esther Capp, 87, and they gathered at Champps on West Seventh Street in St. Paul. They ordered burgers and fish for lunch.

And then they broke out the cards, chiding each other not to chat so much during play because it made it hard to remember the cards or urging each other to have another piece of the See’s candy someone brought.

“I had one already,” Sweet said.

“You’re entitled to have two,” another player said.

“Yeah, we live it up,” Abrahamson said.

And they notice if anyone isn’t eating and playing normally.

“We look after each other. Otherwise, they die and it leaves an empty seat at the bridge table,” Sweet said. “That’s why I’m not gonna die.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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