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Nonagenerians Celebrate A Lifetime Of Bridge-Playing

Mary Jo Browning, left, prepares to play bridge with lifelong friend, Bennie Pendergrass, on her 90th birthday, at The Culpeper retirement village in Culpepper, Va. Allison Brophy Champion/The Star-Exponent via AP

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) — Two pals, for an incredible length of 80 years, recently celebrated one’s 90th birthday with the sharing of separate and shared memories from a friendship lasting a lifetime, and recently renewed. And to think–it all started with a game of bridge.

“Bennie’s parents wanted her to learn, she was an only child, so they told her she could invite a friend to come and learn, too–because bridge is a multiple of four and so that’s how we came to be friends.

“Our friendship dates back to grammar school,” recalled Mary Jo Browning, also 90, during a visit Friday, Sept. 23, the 90th birthday of her girlhood friend and fellow bridge player, Bennie Pendergrass.

Both still play the card game, and the shared interest binds them.

Browning is an esteemed Culpeper resident–a former librarian, author, historian, educator and social worker–residing since late 2019 at The Culpeper Senior Living Community.

Pendergrass moved to the expansive, recently modernized facility overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains last fall from her home at Lake of the Woods in Orange County. She made the switch after her husband, Curt Pendergrass, a naval officer from California, died.

The couple met while both were stationed in Hawaii. They traveled the world for his military career before his final station at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia.

But Bennie’s story goes back even further with her faithful friend, Mary Jo. The women grew up together in Washington, N.C.

Pendergrass and Browning were 10 years old and public-school classmates in the early 1940s when Bennie invited Mary Jo over to her house to learn how to play bridge, a four-person game.

Bennie Farquharson was the only child of parents who were avid bridge players, who played with the same married couple for years. They wanted their child to learn, too, and she needed a partner.

“I wanted to play because my momma played and my dad played and they had a foursome every Saturday night for years and years,” Pendergrass said.

The card-playing foursome would alternate between their homes. The friends and neighbors engaged in hours weekly of the trick-taking game in which two teams compete to win as many games to 100 as possible. Aces are high, twos low.

Asked the object of the game, Pendergrass said, “Just to enjoy.”

The game’s object is to score more points than your opponent, Browning added.

“My mother was in a bridge club and occasionally, if someone was sick and it was summertime, she’d ask me to fill in,” Pendergrass said.

“It’s a fun game, no money involved. Not difficult–if you play it–trying to learn it, maybe. If you were 10 years old, nothing is too hard,” she added. “To me, it’s not hard, after 80 years. Anyone can be a good bridge player if they got any sense.”

Browning remembered her friend chose her for the bridge lessons.

“I thought it would be interesting (to learn). I trusted her parents and I was intrigued by the fact I might learn and learn from people who knew how to play well,” Browning said.

After all these years, Pendergrass is the better player, Browning readily allowed.

“I know from my own experience with her at the bridge table and what other people say and think,” she said of her friend. “It’s the ability to think and remember that makes a good bridge player.”

Bennie said Mary Jo is a good player, too.

“My parents taught her,” Pendergrass said.

The friends attended high school in Beaufort County, N.C., and separated for college, but were in each other’s weddings. Browning was the maid of honor in Hawaii.

“We had a party for you, a rehearsal dinner, with a Hawaiian theme because you were stationed in Hawaii at the time,” she recalled.

Browning married and moved to Culpeper in the late 1950s. She had several careers and was very active in the community, earning the Chamber of Commerce’s Amazing Citizen Award in 2016. That year, she was also recognized by a resolution of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Pendergrass, given her husband’s military career, lived in Europe, Morocco, Japan and California. The couple was married until his death in 2019. Sadly, two daughters preceded him.

Over the years, Browning and Pendergrass stayed in touch as Christmas-card friends.

“It was a friendship you could go years without seeing each other and then you see each other again and just keep going. We were close, but we were not dependent upon each other,” Pendergrass said.

As nonagenarians, the friends are now living at The Culpeper, and rekindling their friendship in a different setting.

“It’s a change, but it’s OK, people are friendly and try to make the transition as smooth as they can,” Browning said of making the move to the retirement village. “It’s not easy sometimes … You’re giving up lots of things, you’re giving up your house, your driving … but you make the best of it, because that’s life.”

Living in a retirement village during the COVID-19 pandemic was scary, Browning said.

“There were many things I was getting used to. It just added one more to the list of new things to deal with,” she said.

It was difficult, agreed Barbara Wimble, Browning’s daughter-in-law.

“She did not have a good beginning here because it was lonely,” Wimble said during the visit for Bennie’s birthday.

“We would stand in the driveway and give air hugs, outside with masks on,” Wimble said.

“And waving,” finished Browning.

Browning’s son, William, contacted the Culpeper Star-Exponent about reporting on the longtime friends as a surprise for Bennie’s birthday. “A friendship rekindled in Culpeper,” he wrote in the subject line pitching the sweet story.

“Bennie and Mary Jo now play bridge together again … Mary Jo plans to bring Bennie a birthday card at the bridge game at The Culpeper on Friday afternoon,” he said.

Those plans got changed when Pendergrass had visitors for her 90th. She was surprised to learn a reporter wanted to hear her story.

“I feel like I’m about 100 right now,” she remarked, asked how she felt on her birthday. “It’s not worn me out–I’m not used to it.”

At 90, Bennie can feel however she wants.

Pendergrass admitted it’s great to be back with one of her first friends.

“You have a good friend you may not see each other all the time, but it’s nice to know she’s here and I hope she feels the same about me,” the birthday girl said.

“I do, I do,” Browning replied. “Sometimes I go up to your room, stick my head in, say ‘Hi, how are you, love you, see you later.’ “

The friends still play bridge, of course.

There are several card-game clubs at The Culpeper, Pendergrass said, though none were playing on that particular day. So she and Mary Jo staged a game in the community room for the birthday visit.

It was a lot for Bennie, with the surprise of being interviewed. She and Mary Jo both grabbed a deck of cards and started shuffling. Lacking two more players, there was not going to be a real game of birthday bridge.

“What is all of this about?” Pendergrass asked her friend.

“It’s about your birthday,” Mary Jo said.

A reporter wished her happy birthday and told Pendergrass she hoped she would keep playing bridge with her friend.

“I hope so, too,” Bennie said.

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