A few weeks ago, I went to visit a 93-year-old friend. Well, I shouldn’t say old friend. I should say good friend.
Mrs. Drake (She says, “Call me Jeannie.” I can’t bring myself to do it…) is an accomplished jazz musician who brought me back to piano after twenty years. From 1996 to 1998 with unbelievable patience and good humor, she taught me Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata.
With sweaty palms in a living room packed with parents and fellow students my children’s ages, I played the heck out of that piece. It was one of the worst and best moments of my life. All I can say is thank God for blood pressure medication.
I hadn’t seen her for years. I have been a terrible, horrible, no-good lousy friend. When life got in the way I stopped practicing and then, embarrassed by my lack of progress, gave up lessons entirely. For a while we shared a pair of Oakland East Bay Symphony tickets. Once a month, I picked her up to go hear the incredible Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Chopin, along with a bunch of unbearable discordant composers well beyond my musical understanding.
When Friday symphony became past my bedtime and I worried about snoring in my seat, I gave that up as well. (Mrs. Drake didn’t seem to have a bedtime. Over 40 years my senior, it seemed like she could have gone out clubbing after the concerts. They should bottle that stuff…)
When her husband died, Mrs. Drake moved into Harbor Bay’s Water's Edge Lodge. I sent her birthday and Christmas cards with notes promising to stop by, but never did. I have no good excuses. There are none. And the longer I put it off, the harder it was to make myself go.
Then recently I reconnected with Mrs. Drake’s daughter, Pamm, when Kelly Kearney, owner of , invited me to a fundraiser for Cristine Rottach - a dancer accepted to a in New York who needed funding for her trip.
When I bought my ticket, I didn’t realize that Kelly is one of , and both women dance with Pamm Drake’s Performing Art Center on Santa Clara Avenue. Our 27-year-old daughter, Sarah, danced with Pamm for eight years and that is how I met her mother.
Mrs. Drake once told me that in the late 1930’s, she and her husband lived in Chicago and wanted to go to a jazz club in a sketchy part of town to hear her idol, Lionel Hampton, play the vibes. Their only night off was the club’s “Negro Night” – no whites allowed, so the Drakes and their white male bass player blackened their faces. Jeannie dressed in a baggy suit, tucked her hair under a hat and went as a black man, just to hear the music. Her companions forgot to blacken their hands and were stopped at the ticket booth, but Jeannie wore gloves, slipped by security and heard Hampton play while the men waited outside.
I consider myself adventurous and would do almost anything for the promise of a good time, but that trumps it. That’s Mrs. Drake in a nutshell. (Born on St. Patrick’s Day, she would show up to her own birthday party at the Elks Lodge looking like a green satin leprechaun.) She’s a real firecracker.
So Mrs. Drake was on my mind the other night as I reunited with parents and student dancers from years ago. A tall young man passing hors d’oeuvres turned out to be Harry Snider, whom I’ve known all his life and didn’t recognize. Harry’s mom, Susie, is another tap dancing Christmas tree and when Sarah danced at Dance/10, Harry was the studio mascot. He is about to graduate from high school.
Time travels at warp speed. Both Lady Diana Spencer and I were married in 1981. Her sons are about our daughters’ ages. In a one-bedroom apartment across from the original Berkeley Bowl on Stuart Street, I stayed up all night to watch young Diana marry Prince Charles. Years later in Alameda, I cried watching her sons in her funeral procession.
And just the other morning Sarah and I set an alarm for 2:45 a.m. to see William and Katherine take their vows in Westminster Abbey. (Well, technically, we were under a cozy down comforter in Alameda. They were in Westminster Abbey. Our invitation was probably lost in the mail. But we did wear pretty hats with our pjs. It’s a “must” to wear a hat to a royal wedding.)
But I digress. Back in Kelly’s living room, I asked Pamm about her mother and told her how badly I felt about losing touch. Pamm said she had pneumonia, was transferred to the nursing facility down by the Park Street Bridge, and now was the time to visit.
So the next day I bought some sweet peas from the stand in front of and headed down Park Street, mentally rehearsing my heartfelt apology speech. I was as nervous as I had been years ago at my piano recital.
In her convalescent bed, Jeannie was dressed in bright pink, a matching floral scarf around her neck. For someone with pneumonia, she looked downright dapper. I gave her a quick kiss and started apologizing a mile a minute, confessing that I was the worst of all possible friends.
She shook her head, eyes watering and said that I was a wonderful friend. At that point I lost it. She went on to say something about being a burden to her friends, which I denied adamantly. Then in a soft voice, eyes shut, she said, “I think I am getting old.” I burst out laughing, wiping the tears from my cheeks.
“What’s old?” I asked. “It’s just a word. I used to think 40 was old. I believe old is whatever age is higher than your current number.” She laughed, and began coughing. I could hear the fluid deep in her chest.
Not wanting to wear her out, I thought it was time to go, so I asked if there was anything she needed. “Soup,” she said, her tongue searching the corners of her dry mouth like a hungry teenager looking for snacks in a cupboard.
So if it’s OK with the nurses, I will pick up some soup and go back for lunch with my good (not old) friend, Mrs. Drake. And we will talk of daring adventures, fairytale weddings, and the inevitability of change.
If you would like to help Cristine Rottach get to New York, please contact the Dance/10 Performing Art Center office at 510-339-3345.