• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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The World Still Astounds You

Last night, I went to PEN’s annual gala dinner. It was held in the whale room of the Natural History Museum. When I was in college, I briefly worked for party decorator and one of our jobs was the whale room. How is it, thirty years later, I feel as if I better fit in with the wait staff and the young man with a gorgeous crown of dreadlocks frantically trying to get every candle on every last table lit? And I was so unhappy then! All I wanted was to be grown up and have a profession since I decided early on that love would probably not be in the cards. And now that I am here, a person in her own right, what?

The whale is majestic floating above the sea of literary lights. I want to devour it. How many times during the evening did I gaze upon it and then imagine it coming loose from its moorings, crashing down and killing everyone at table 28? With plenty of collateral damage. I see everyone I’ve ever worked for, worked with, sold a book to, etc. Everywhere I look is someone I know. Is it my bat mitzvah, college graduation, wedding, are we in the grand ballroom at The Stanley Hotel? The truth is I am fine. Even enjoy myself eventually. Get a few zingers in. See some people I really like, a few I love, some I loathe. I think only one person snubbed me (and you know who you are).

On the train home I thought about the young man who got me the job doing party decorations with him. He used to call me star maker as he watched me sign my first authors. One night we filled the Roseland Ballroom full of roses.

Are you always who you were?

21 Responses

  1. I think so. Even if I could forget all the years of waitressing, I’d be reminded every time I looked down at my prematurely aged hands (ugh– bleach water).

  2. that question just broke my heart a little

  3. I was a second grade teacher for thirty-three years before I retired 14 years ago. When I stopped working, I felt empty — as though I’d lost my identity.

    Even now, after having had three novels published, I don’t call myself a writer because this might all be a fluke.

    I know I’m a good teacher, so I go with that.

  4. I’ve contemplated this question a thousand times. Mid-life crisis and all… No, I’m not. Most people would say thank goodness, but I wish I could find my way back to that optimistic girl with the unflagging faith that everything was going to be ok. She used to run away and lie in the wet hay staring up at the stars and somehow know that there was a higher order to it all. What, she didn’t know. But it was there. And it made her strong.

  5. I would have been right there with you, staring at that whale and thinking Towering Inferno or Poseidon Adventure? Steve Mcqueen or Shelley Winters? Fire or water? The Morning After soundtracking in my mind.

    No, I’m not always who I was, but it feels good when I am.

  6. More often than not I am that 16 year old girl playing hookey from school to weep the day away listening to Robert goulet soundtracks from her foster parents dorky reel to reel collection

  7. The older I get, the more I’m who I used to be.

    • That’s my nightmare. I like to imagine this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf1v-c1tQPk

      But who’m I kidding? I’m still the pasty kid in tube socks and a cowboy-style shirt with rhinestone buttons, fantasizing about all the pussy I’ll get when I grow up. The only difference is, now the porn comes straight to my computer and my wife sees the bills, instead of the old days when I once left my wallet on the counter of an adult bookstore, and they called my mom. Who–this is not an exaggeration–neutered my childhood dog with nothing but the force of her personality. A blockheaded Black Lab, he’d smell a horny bitch and scramble into the bathtub and lay there panting until the danger passed.

      • That explains so much. So much.

      • Yeah, sexually repressed 50s housewives. Not a good thing. My mother *taught* our dog not to lift his leg when he peed. Why? Apparently, it bothered her. Maybe we hung out together during mid morning social hour while they drank coffee and blew second hand smoke all over us?

      • Must’ve been a different social hour, Deb. Anyone tried to blow second-hand smoke on my mother’s son, and she would’ve absorbed the fumes through her skin like a charcoal filter. Better she get a little cancer than I get a tickle in my throat.

  8. We’re the same kids we always were. Some people’s suits of armor just fit better than others.

    Betsy, you are the Royal Queen of Morbida. I love that about you. Everywhere you look…there’s death winking back at you, eh?

  9. That sounds splendid–I love that blue whale…

    I have also encountered the whale a few times in my life–as a child, as a parent, and when writing about whales…

    I am what I always was–book lover, singer, aniimal lover etc.

  10. I’ve returned to Betsy’s blog to read this post four times. Each time it’s left me awash in nostalgia and introspection. Each time I changed my answer to the question. I’m unsure if a yes or a no is more troubling.

  11. In the last few months, I’ve overcome feeling snobby every time I see O Magazine. Occasionally, buried alongside more ads than should be allowed by law, are some real gems. This month there’s even a page on Story Magazine/The Good Thief Hannah Tinti. That was a surprise–and very cool. This morning I found a sidebar quote by one of my favorite poets, Kay Ryan. She was talking about words she began repeating to herself when she was a teenager, words she repeated with the “intention being to protect me from what I felt was going to take me away from myself”. I love that protectiveness as much as I love her words: “Be what you are, be what you are, be what you are.”

  12. I am both completely different from and exactly the same as who I used to be. I’m no Freudian, but I DO think that everything gets hardwired into us before we’re 5, and we spend the rest of our miserable, magnificent lives trying to get over/around/back to/away from/a handle on/through it. (Actually, I don’t know anyone trying to get “back to” it, not sure if that’s by design or beause they’re like unicorns.) At 47, my initial responses are exactly the same as they were when I was 11, it’s where I go from there that has changed over the years. And not necessarily in a good way, but, y’know, I’m working on it. Also, I have much better shoes.

  13. Great blog post! You got me with the ballroom full of roses. I love memories that crystallized a moment, yet may have been passed off at the time.

    I could stand to have the body I had when I was 25, which I thought was so imperfect. I miss the importance complete strangers placed in me simply because I was young, limber and ambitious. And easily distracted. What I have now is a twelve year old’s sense of purpose, before boys and careers. Those little girls working all hours, planning their weddings, buying houses–it looks like insanity to me now.

  14. “It is never too late to be who you might have been.” – George Eliot

  15. Hi Betsy,
    Can’t wait to see you next month, have missed you dearly.

    I have a few thoughts on your interesting evening among writers and other mammals. To understand what you were doing for part of the evening we have to start by distinguishing between feeling and defense – and in this situation I think the identification with the wait staff is the defense – not the feeling. (As someone who has hidden in the kitchen in many parties with the wait staff, I can unfortunately identify with this defense.) Why do we do it? Well………..

    In my experience the feelings stirred up on these evenings – can be quite intense, and at times, feel like more than we can deal with. So many of the important decisions we have made in our lives, both about what to do with it professionally and whom to spend it with both personally and professionally are literally sitting right there before us, at one table. No wonder we can be tempted, albeit unconsciously, to literally remove ourselves from the situation – like the whale floating above the party. An identification – in this case with the waiters – is one such mechanism we can use to remove ourselves – not only from strong feeling but also from the vulnerability of interaction with our peers.

    Unfortunately, for many of us there is a strong inclination in life toward repudiating our own authority and reassuring others that we are no threat. While, at first, it seems so strange to think that winning can feel like losing – when we understand the childhood experiences that led to these anxieties we are better able to disown our defensive identifications (with the wait staff) and better own and embody our successes.

    I think one of real the difficulties on evenings like the one you described isn’t really in feeling like we haven’t changed – though to be fair, it can feel bad on those evenings to feel our self esteem is still not what it could or should be. But I think the real feeling of vulnerability can often lie in acknowledging our success and how much has changed; in fact how much in our lives has gone right. It can make us feel mortal. After all your catering colleague saw the future quite clearly – you did become a star maker. And you did find love!

    Hope this wasn’t padantic or shrinky.



  16. I read Mad Magazine religiously, worshipped The Muppets, and wore a t-shirt that read “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” listened to Alex Bennet’s dirty jokes on the radio (in San Francisco), and cast my friends in my plays and skits when they came over to play – all by the age of 10. I had no idea that I had a passion for “irony,” and was learning to distance myself from life in order to comment on it. My greatest strengths as a writer, are my downfall as a human being. Hopefully, as an adult I can put all the pegs in the right holes and not use my insights to push people away, or my sensitivity to give up on life. I don’t think I’d sacrifice the clarity of my adulthood for the idealism of youth. I never want to be that lost.

  17. I worked as a nine-to-five social worker for fourteen years, clad in cardigan sweaters and comfort shoes. In my mid-30’s, I opened a martini lounge with my partner and was thrust happily into the hospitality industry, slinging drinks behind the bar and waiting tables. I love it and it transformed me. I wear high heels and skinny jeans now, and I drink martinis instead of herbal tea. Best part is, my creativity started to flow and now I write like a maniac. When I join young people running around picking up empty lipstick-branded glasses under a precariously dangling whale, I think, why didn’t I figure this out sooner?

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