Bricky Duquette and Marian Bickford may look like your average grandmothers, but don’t let the lemon chiffon cake or maternal hand squeeze fool you: They’re fierce competitors.

Duquette and Bickford are two original members of the Essex Ladies’ Bridge Club, still active 44 years after Duquette and former bridge partner Sandra Viele founded the group.

Back then, members paid $8 a year, and the group presented a $200 check to Essex Rescue on June 21, 1974 – “the only charity we could come up with,” Duquette recalled last week.

“You know, I’m kind of impressed we were able to do that,” she added, flipping through pages of her club’s history.

With bright red fingernails, she pointed to a letter from then-president of Essex Rescue Donald L. Hamlin dated June 26, 1974.

TOP: Four original members of the Essex Ladies’ Bridge Club thumb through the group’s 44-year history at their year-end gathering last week. Pictured L to R: Marian Bickford, Bricky Duquette (seated), June Silverman and Joyce Stone. ABOVE: Co-founder Duquette examines old scorecards from the club’s early days. (Photos by Abby Ledoux)

“Your efforts in our behalf and moral support mean a great deal to the squad,” Hamlin wrote, going on to invite the entire group to the new quarters “so that you can share in what your generosity has helped make possible.”

Now collecting $15/member in annual dues, the club still donates to Rescue today, but they’ve since added other charities like Meals on Wheels, Heavenly Pantry Food Shelf and the Essex Teen Center to the mix.

In 44 years, the group has donated more than $17,000 to local causes, co-chair and treasurer Donna Harnish calculated from meticulous recordkeeping.

Last Monday night marked the club’s final meeting of the year, and Harnish went over finances: After paying $225 in rent to the Essex Area Senior Center where the club meets once a month, the group voted to split its remaining $200 between the food shelf and Meals on Wheels.

Even a modest donation goes a long way for charities with tight budgets bracing for funding cuts, co-chair Paula Sargent said.

“In that way, it impacts the whole community,” she added.

A relative newcomer to the group, Sargent – along with partner Harnish – is younger than her cohorts. She had little experience playing the card game, but her interest was piqued after hearing bridge players in the community talk about how much fun the local club was.

“It is fun though, isn’t it?” Duquette asked her last week.

“It is so fun,” Sargent said. “I’ve met so many nice people.”

Come for the cards, stay for the people

Today, 16 teams play once a month at the Senior Center from October to June. Designated partners play 18 hands against other teams of two, cycling through the room in two to three hours as is the format for partner bridge – not to be confused with contract bridge, a variation of the classic game devised by railroad executive and yachtsman Harold Stirling Vanderbilt in 1925 on a ship from Los Angeles to Havana through the Panama Canal.

“If you play contract bridge, you would maybe never move all night,” Duquette explained. “[Partner bridge is] a party bridge, scorekeeping, fun type of game.”

Though the formal charge of the club is card play, friendship is the central theme. Of the original 20 teams, six women remain active in the group: Duquette, Bickford, Sherry Marcoux, June Silverman, Anne Hewett and Joyce Stone.

They share stories of grandchildren’s dance recitals, recall Louis Armstrong concerts on Malletts Bay or Dick Clark on early television sets and reminisce about the soda fountains and ice cream shops of yore – Burlington natives, Duquette and Stone agree: Candy Cupboard’s hot fudge was unparalleled.

“I still love hot fudge sundaes to this day,” Stone said.

“And you still love bridge to this day!” Bickford piped in.

Aptly named, bridge brought these women together decades ago when most were young wives and mothers new to Essex. Today, they share an easy friendship reminiscent of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

“I say Bricky works the room when she gets here,” Bickford said last week.

“I do,” Duquette replied.

Years after they started playing bridge together, Duquette and Bickford – the latter originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia – discovered they were Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters, Duqette at the University of Vermont and Bickford at Penn State.

“At that point I said to Bricky, ‘no wonder I liked you from the beginning!’” Bickford laughed.

Six of the original Essex Ladies’ Bridge Club members remain active in the group today. Pictured in the Essex Area Senior Center last week, L to R: June Silverman, Bricky Duquette, Sherry Marcoux, Joyce Stone, Marian Bickford and Anne Hewett. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Further bonds were forged, too, including across borders: 20 years ago, Bickford and Duquette ended up regularly playing bridge with two European women with “a lot of time on their hands” whose husbands were on assignment at IBM. They deemed themselves the “Foreign Bridge Group,” and the relationship continued even after the assignment ended.

Reflection on nearly half a century of organized play consistently returned to the social aspect of the game.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs, with the babies born and people that died,” Duquette said. “You’ve formed a friendship, which I think is commendable. You wouldn’t have known these people.”

Before a year-end potluck dinner last week, a cluster formed around Duquette and Bickford in a back room of the Senior Center as they examined the club’s history book. Every name in the records sparked an anecdote.

“Look at the names, Joyce, does it bring back memories, darling?” Duquette asked, thumbing through the worn pages. “Oh my God, this is fabulous! I haven’t seen this for years. We’ll have to give a copy to you, Marian, right?”

“More junk for my kids to throw out when I go play bridge in the sky!” Bickford quipped. “When we started out, we probably didn’t think we were making history.”

Bridging the gap

Despite their fun, members of the Essex Ladies’ Bridge Club have a problem: They need fresh blood.

That’s a pervasive trend in the world of bridge, a game evolved from the British card game “whist” that enjoyed widespread popularity in the Depression and war years, according to a 2007 New Yorker piece on the subject. The Association of American Playing Card Manufacturers reports the game was played in 44 percent of American homes in the 1940s.

Like most of her peers, Bickford started playing with her mother’s friends around age 16. In college, “we had a game that started as soon as four people were up in the morning,” she said. “If you wanted to go to class, you better find someone to take your place.”

When Duquette moved from Burlington to Essex in the ‘60s, she started playing bridge with her old high school friends to pass the time.

“We said, ‘this is fun,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘there’s no bridge club out here, and wouldn’t it be fun to start one?’”

And so she did, recruiting friends of friends from the Birchwood and Pinewood neighborhoods of Essex. Through word of mouth, the group took off, and women would travel to each other’s homes for monthly games.

Each hostess would make dessert and coffee or tea for visiting competitors who arrived at 7 p.m., the women recalled.

“We were looking for a way out,” Duquette said, noting one night a month was a manageable escape for mothers with young children. “Oh my God, it was so much fun. I loved having two tables of bridge at our house. It was fun to make a dessert, and of course you’re kind of newly wed then – you’re not tired of making dessert.”

Club practices evolved as circumstances changed, like a big IBM move that disrupted established women’s organizations – the processing plant originally brought many of the members to Essex in the first place, including Bickford and Duquette, whose husbands took jobs there.

The ladies couldn’t resist a final game of bridge at their last gathering of the year. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

Speaking of husbands, the women snickered at their original record keeping, which identified them by their husbands’ names.

“’Mrs. Ronald Duquette,’” Bickford read from the scorekeeping sheet.

“I didn’t have a first name,” Duquette said. “Not a person, that’s how the old days treated you.”

Over time, the women earned more sovereignty; the club expanded past Essex and bridge play moved out of the home.

But something else happened: By and large, young people stopped playing.

In 2005, the American Contract Bridge League estimated there were 25 million bridge players in the U.S. – just less than 12 percent of the country’s population then, and a less impressive number when compared to the 44 percent of households reportedly playing the game in the ‘40s.

The average age of ACBL members is climbing, too, CEO Robert Hartman reported: In 2001, it was 65; in 2011, nearly 70.

“The trend is not our friend,” Hartman wrote.

Well-known bridge aficionados Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are advocates of playing the game for preserving mental acumen. Studies have shown bridge is effective in offering seniors routine intellectual and social stimulation, the AARP reports.

“It does make you think, and we need to do that to keep our minds straight,” Duquette said. “We’re all OK so far! Who knows – ask us next year, but this year we seem OK. We’re doing alright.”

Still, they need more people to join their ranks, and membership is not limited to Essex residents or retirees. Club members stress the monthly meetings are fun, social gatherings for a good cause, and even first-timers with no knowledge of bridge are invited to try their hand – literally – and encouraged to shed any preconceived intimidation of the game’s notorious complexity.

“We try to keep it simple,” Sargent said.

“And fun,” Duquette added. “I think it’s gotta stay fun – it can’t be competitive.”

That doesn’t mean they’ll stop keeping score, though.

For more information or to join the Essex Ladies’ Bridge Club, contact co-chairs Donna Harnish at 879-7922 or Paula Sargent at 735-5334.