When Miriam Bertha formed her Bunco group, she never dreamed that she would still be rolling dice, having fun and enjoying lasting friendships more than a half-century later.
Mrs. Bertha, now 84, said she started playing the parlor game after a friend heard about it and told her she thought it would be fun. A mother of five, she was living in Mount Oliver at the time and invited other moms who lived within walking distance.
"We just decided that we wanted to get together and get out, so we formed this group in the neighborhood," she said. "You became friendlier when you belonged to a club like this."
Mrs. Bertha, who now lives in Whitehall, said she chose the game because it is simple to play and doesn't require a lot of concentration, which leaves plenty of room for conversation.
The game is played in teams with three dice; the object is to accumulate points and roll certain combinations.
Bunco came to the United States from England in the 18th century. It came to be associated with speakeasies during Prohibition. But Bunco grew in popularity as a family game in the 1980s. The World Bunco Association, based in Newport Beach, Calif., said some 27 million people pay regularly.
Mrs. Bertha's original group consisted of eight women who gathered one evening a month to play and enjoy dinner and dessert together. Like her, many were stay-at-home mothers.
"We were glad to get out," she said.
In addition to their monthly gatherings, the group would get together at Christmas for a special dinner and a grab bag. Mrs. Bertha described it as a fun evening and an opportunity for them to let down their hair.
Of the original group, only Mrs. Bertha remains; the others have moved or died. The game, however, is still going strong with eight members and three substitutes.
Alberta Sherman, 83, of Jefferson Hills has been a member for the past 25 years. She started out as a substitute and became a permanent player after a member died.
Mrs. Sherman said she enjoys playing Bunco because she doesn't have to think about it and she can converse with her friends.
"It's the camaraderie," she said. "You catch up on everything that's happened to all the other seven women. It's very nice."
Members take turns hosting, which Mrs. Sherman said she enjoys because she loves to entertain.
The group meets once a month in the afternoon to play and have lunch and dessert together. Each member chips in $2, which go to the winner.
Frances Cercone of Mount Oliver was asked to join the group about 30 years ago after a member died. She said she, too, enjoys the camaraderie and said the friendships run deep.
"We just have a good time," she said. "You have time to talk. Sometimes we do a lot of talking and somebody will have to say, 'Come on, are we going to play today?' "
Mrs. Cercone, 84, is one of the few members who still drives and often brings three to five members of the group with her.
Although most of the women walk with canes now and have health problems, Mrs. Bertha said when she suggested they disband the group, she was met with a resounding "no."
"They like to get together. They like to have their little desserts and show off a little bit what they can make sometimes," she said. "They want to stay with Bunco."
Shannon Nass, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.