Today is the 91st birthday of a dear friend of mine, Bereni Karasik, with whom I studied piano as a teenager, and who knew my parents before I was born.
I’ve always felt a strong connection to this magnificent woman, with her keen intelligence and regal old-world bearing. I’ve kept in touch over the years, visiting her at her house in the inner Richmond district of San Francisco long after I gave up taking regular lessons. We’d sit around her cozy book-lined breakfast nook, talking about music, literature, family, and her life and mine, while she took thoughtful, delicate puffs from long cigarettes.
I would study her gestures and face, fascinated. With her high forehead, swept-back hair and striking features, she looked like Carolyn Jones as Morticia on The Addams Family—but to me, more stunning. There was a depth and resonance to everything she said, making me feel there was nowhere else in the world to be at that moment, nothing as important as taking in her extraordinary presence.
We would return to the piano every now and then. As recently as four or five years ago, when I needed to brush up on a few Bach preludes so that I could play at an upcoming dinner party, I went over for help. Bereni fed me soup, commiserated with me about the fix I was in (pressure to perform because I didn’t want to disappoint the host), and walked me through the pieces with the same incisive coaching as always, demonstrating as needed with confident, elegant fingers.
This morning, I was eager to wish Bereni a happy birthday, and phoned her at the elder care facility to which she moved about a year ago, grand piano in tow.
Most people sound older over time, but when Bereni answered, it was the same youthful voice as always. I’d caught her in the middle of her practicing. “Shall I call you back in a little while?” I offered, perhaps not loudly enough.
“Do you know, Lis,” she remarked, “I can do something today on the piano that I couldn’t do yesterday.”
A technical issue, probably—a glitch in a scale, perhaps, or trouble with a trill. I’d read about the elderly being able to build muscle by lifting weights, but beyond a vague sense that folk dancing is good for older people, I’d never thought about continued ability to improve motor coordination.
“At this ripe old age of ninety-one,” Bereni went on, “I can still learn. I wish younger people would understand that. They think if they can’t do something, they should give up. But really, the things you think you can’t overcome, you can teach yourself. You can learn something new if you just keep trying.”
“But sometimes, people try too hard,” I pointed out, referring to my ongoing struggle with over-thinking and over-doing.
“Yes, they do, and at the wrong things,” Bereni said, taking my meaning. “That’s another problem. That can be learned, too.”
My son Evan recently told me that watching me change and grow gave him the assurance that he could do the same. I’ve never gotten a higher compliment. I wanted to tell Bereni this, tell her what a privilege it was for me to talk to her today.
Suddenly there was a lightning-quick major scale over the phone, an octave up and back down with such precision that I barely had time to register what I was hearing.
“You see?” Bereni said, in uncharacteristic self-congratulation. “Now it just goes.”
Published in the Piedmont Post, November 4, 2009