Staying in Tune
At Birchwood Terrace nursing home, centenarian-pianist Winona Robinson is the life of the party
The first thing you notice when you walk into Birchwood Terrace, a nursing home on Starr Farm Road in Burlington's New North End, is the quiet. The wall-to-wall carpeting in the foyer of the 160-bed facility muffles the sound of your footsteps and the sounds of residents' wheelchairs when they roll across the floor.
Not that they move much -- the five men and women gathered there one Thursday afternoon are content to sit still. A couple glance up hopefully, searching the face of a passerby, while the rest remain slightly slumped forward in their chairs, silently staring straight ahead.
But down the corridor, past the Alzheimer's wing, past rooms in which men and women lie on hospital beds, their mouths drooped open speechlessly, asleep, you reach an activity room, and in the corner sits a squat black piano. Amid the soft voices of nurses gently coaxing their patients, and the relentless drone of a large TV, on this October afternoon it's also possible to hear the unexpected and cheerful sound of music.
Presiding over the keyboard is 100-year-old Winona "Nonie" Robinson, one of Birchwood's four 100-plus residents. Centenarians aren't as rare as they used to be. Their numbers doubled in the 1980s, and again in the '90s. Roughly 70,000 of them are living in the U.S. today. But Robinson is remarkable nonetheless; at 100, she's still sharp, flirtatious and funny. She's not just alive, but lively. And music is a big part of what keeps her going. "Music has always been my life," she says.
In fact, Robinson is part of a growing number of senior citizens who are realizing the benefits of music-making in their lives. A growing number of nationwide programs, too, recognize that the activity, and the socialization required, keeps seniors engaged and motivated.
Robinson's been playing solo piano at Birchwood since she moved there in 2002. Activity Enrichment Director Linnie Aubin says that it took Robinson a little while to discover the piano in the activity room, but she still managed to play. "She had a tiny miniature piano she used to set up at her bedside table and plunk at that," Aubin notes.
But on her 100th birthday, the centenarian decided she wanted some company. "It's been my ambition all my life to play with someone else," she explains. So after local musician Gigi Weisman finished entertaining the guests at Robinson's party with her violin, Robinson asked if Weisman might like to join her sometime. Weisman, 58, jumped at the chance, and the two began rehearsing immediately. "She's 100 years old," says Weisman. "I didn't want to put it off until December."
This afternoon they're rehearsing for their first gig -- on Thursday, November 4, they'll play a 3:30 show in the Birchwood activity room. Robinson calls the event "Nonie and Gigi Entertain." On the program are old favorites such as "God Bless America," "A Bicycle Built for Two" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." And Robinson has prepared some stories to tell, including a rhyme about "a burglar bold" who stole into an old maid's house only to be forced, at gunpoint, to marry her. "My mother taught me that when I was a little kid," she reveals with chuckle.
But while Robinson's music reverberates easily through the room, her voice is pinched and thin, constricted by pneumonia, so her listeners need to lean in to hear. It's well worth the effort, even when she's not performing. After Weisman helps her out of her wheelchair and onto the piano bench, a thirtysomething photographer bends down to introduce himself. Robinson looks at him with her bright blue eyes and says, "If I'd known you were coming, I would have baked a cake."
Then Robinson turns to the piano, Weisman picks up her violin and bow, and the two begin to play, a little slowly at first. They start out with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," followed by "You Are My Sunshine." Both Robinson and Weisman play the melody. Weisman later explains that she can usually harmonize, but this morning, Robinson seems a little clumsier than usual.
Robinson agrees with that assessment, calling her performance "dreadful," on account of an injured finger. Last week she slipped out of a chair and bent it backwards. She flexes it and insists it's not broken, maybe only sprained, but at her age, things just don't heal as quickly or as easily as they used to. Weisman inquires if she'd like to stop and give it a rest, but Robinson says she'd rather go on.
The third number they play is one of Robinson's favorites: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The selection feels especially sweet this morning because the previous night her favorite team won the World Series.
Robinson has been a Sox fan since before they won their last World Series, in 1918. She was 14 at the time. "They've been my team since I was old enough to read," she says. "I started listening to the games with a little square box with earphones -- it was a radio -- and I've listened ever since."
Robinson says she was listening to the final game of this Series but fell asleep before the end. "The first nurse that came in this morning said they won," she reports happily.
To celebrate, Robinson is wearing a Red Sox T-shirt over her green skirt. The shirt peeks out from beneath a long-sleeved, red-and-white speckled jacket, one pocket of which holds a wad of clean tissues.
The two launch into the baseball anthem with gusto. Towards the end Weisman calls out, "It's one, two, three strikes you're out!" You'd think at least a couple of the 10 or so residents in the room would respond, but they seem mostly uninterested in the rehearsal; some of them are asleep.
After a few more tunes, Weisman persuades her companion to take a break and talk to the reporter. It doesn't require much prodding to elicit some of Robinson's stories. Gregarious and eager to talk, she says she was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, and grew up a "PK" -- "PK means 'preacher's kid,'" she explains slyly.
Her father, a Congregational minister, moved the family whenever he was reassigned to a new church, so Robinson grew up in several Vermont towns. She went to high school in Derby, and eventually settled in South Hero, where she worked for a few years as a rural schoolteacher. "I had 23 kids in six grades," she recalls. "I made $18 a week, paid $5 a week for room and board. I thought I was rich."
Robinson is a self-taught musician. She started experimenting on the family melodeon when she was 4 years old. When she was 8, her parents decided to spring for lessons. "I couldn't take it," Robinson recalls sheepishly. "I'm afraid I was a brat. I went on from there by myself." For years she played at weddings, dances, parties, church services and graduations.
As she talks about herself, Robinson's most vivid stories are about the people and places from her childhood and young adulthood: the students she taught, the years her father moonlighted as a proofreader at the Rutland Herald, the farm near Montpelier where her parents sent her one summer when she sick.
Robinson married while she was working as a teacher, and was widowed twice. Until she moved to Birchwood, she lived in her 17-room farmhouse in South Hero. She has no children but keeps in touch with family in Vermont and Florida. And she seems to have a lot of friends -- as many people showed up for her birthday party as there were years to celebrate.
Weisman isn't surprised by the turnout. "She's so dear," she says. "She so embraces whoever is there in a genuine way. I guess if you become 100, you become friends fast."
Robinson corroborates that theory when a beaming orderly named Steven approaches to give her a hug. She doesn't remember his name at first, but she's still happy to see him. "I get so many hugs," she says. "I love to be hugged."
Aubin agrees that something about Robinson sets her apart. "For her age, she's very well intact," Aubin says. "She's just a lot of fun to be around."
The final song Weisman and Robinson play is "Let There Be Peace on Earth," a reminder that, in all of Robinson's years, no one has achieved it. She still remembers World War I.
The song is one of the few Christian hymns the duet plays. Robinson knows them all, but Weisman is Jewish. The violinist jokes that this has drastically reduced their repertoire. But they're adapting. Weisman has picked up a few Christian tunes and is teaching Robinson "The Dreidel Song" for a holiday concert.
Before taking Robinson back to her room, Weisman stops to tell one more Nonie story. A few weeks ago, one of the male residents wandered into the room she shares with a female roommate. The roommate didn't know the man and was confused by his presence. Weisman found him there and took him to the nurses' station. After-ward, Robinson remarked, "We wouldn't have minded if he was good-looking."
Robinson chuckles listening to this story, which she enjoys but can't seem to remember. "That's the typical minister's daughter," she says. "They're just as bad as the rest of them."
Later, Weisman reflects on her relationship with this 100-year-old musical partner, who reminds her of her own grandmother, now deceased. While Robinson has finally achieved her goal of playing with someone else, Weisman gets something out the experience, too. "Playing with her has changed my life," she says. "In the moment, we are playing music, but it feels like so much more."