Our Story

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There’s a photo of the three of us – my parents and me – at Niagara Falls. Probably every immigrant family has one like it. My parents, Yaakov and Marina, not quite 40 years old, looking happy. Successful. Confident.

They had made it. They’d made it out of the Soviet Union, and three countries later were settled in Canada, practicing their profession, and driving their own car to one of the Wonders of the World whenever they felt like it.

My mother passed in the summer of 2016, and since then I’ve been going through a lot of photos, some in old photo albums, some in boxes, more recent ones on her computer.

And then there are the photos I have in my head. Our apartment on Cedarcroft, my mom’s piano in the master bedroom at the end of the hall, brown corkboard on the wall to try to muffle the sound so as not to disturb the neighbours. My dad’s young violin students scratching out pitiful sounds in my parents’ bedroom. Me on the living room couch, eating dinner in front of the TV, surrounded by waiting students and their parents.

The immigrant life.

On my mom’s bookshelf, the immigrant’s photo albums, a heavy stack, schlepped from continent to continent. Here I find gems: my parents’ first meeting, at a music competition in Minsk in 1960. Two kids barely out of their teens, Kuba from Vilnius, a Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian Jew; Marina from Riga, daughter of the German-speaking Latvian-Jewish bourgeoisie. Away from home for the first time.

There’s Kuba with his mischievous grin, wearing a suit with too-short trousers. (What’s a 22-year-old doing wearing a suit?) Marina with a demure smile, well dressed except for the god-awful Soviet shoes. Eventually, baby pictures, the brand-new apartment block in Riga, summers spent at the seaside.

With immigration the photos stop for a while. Who’s got the time? In Israel, the Yom Kippur War comes and goes two weeks before we arrive. The troubles don’t stop the flood of musicians from the Soviet Union – and who needs two more? We move on. What a happy decision that turns out to be.

 

Once we get to Canada, Marina and Kuba have a relatively easy time of it, as immigrant stories go. Within four months, Kuba is playing in the Toronto Symphony, so no one has to deliver pizza. Toronto is still a classical-music town, and there is plenty of work for both of them.

More photos. Chamber concerts in rich people’s homes. Kuba, known to Canadians as Yaakov, on tour with the Symphony, Kodak Carousel full of slides of exotic China and Japan. Marina’s students, grinning after winning competition after competition. The huge, ramshackle Victorian home of the Conservatory on Bloor St., every exposed pipe wrapped in asbestos.

By the late 1980s, the memories are darker. Kuba racing to finish the first of a planned series of books of violin exercises, as illness descends upon him in his late 40s, younger than I am now. In 1990, he dies, at 52. Today, the one book he had time to finish is still in print, loved by violin teachers all over North America.

Marina, too, struggles with her health. Struck with arthritis, she retires from the stage in 1982, at the age of 43. She plays her last concert accompanying her famous brother-in-law, the cellist David Geringas, winner of the 1970 Tchaikovsky Competition, who had followed us into immigration and took that photo in Niagara Falls.

So Marina puts all her energy into teaching, and her legend only grows. She has 8-year-olds playing adult repertoire, sounding like adults. It’s not your ears that you don’t believe at her student recitals, it’s your eyes. “How can the sophisticated music I'm hearing be coming from this tiny person?”

A box of photos posing with children and teenagers. Marina’s students – Andrew Burashko, Naida Cole, Vadim Serebryany, Sonia Chan – go on to musical fame of their own. Remarkably, Marina rarely keeps her students past their mid-teens. As soon as they’re ready to fly, she pushes them out of the nest, on to the next teacher. A young musician should learn from more than one master, she says.

And there’s an even more important talk that Marina’s students get: don’t become a professional musician, she tells them, unless you absolutely can’t NOT be one. Many of her top students take her advice. I’ve looked them up: there’s a heart surgeon, an ebola researcher, a Canadian diplomat posted in Afghanistan…

But many, of course, do go into music. Mainly, they teach, all over Toronto and beyond. Here, too, Marina has an outsized influence. Starting in the early 1980s, she not only teaches children how to play, but gives workshops and lectures on teaching piano. Her pedagogy course at the U of T Faculty of Music becomes legendary. The lessons she learned at the Riga Conservatory, and the methods she developed herself over the decades, spread throughout the city like dandelions. Her students, or their parents, open schools in Markham, Richmond Hill, Mississauga – and her influence goes on. By the 2000s, long-ago students are bringing their own children.

Marina’s health, though, keeps letting her down. She fights off cancer in the 90s, then, on the second day of a trip to Italy in 2007, tumbles head over heels down a set of stairs, and breaks her pelvis.

She’s never the same after that. She keeps travelling, one year indulging her obsession with Japan, another year re-conquering Italy, this time triumphantly. But ultimately, her arthritis spreads. Nerve damage from the fall compromises her digestive system. She cuts down her teaching to almost nothing. Among her very last students are the young children of a music teacher, who tells me later that Marina was the single greatest influence in her life.

And finally, last summer, she dies, alone in her meticulously decorated home, where she’d spent almost exactly half her life. A life that now goes on not just in her granddaughter’s memories, but in the musical culture she created, modestly, almost reluctantly, but with a firm belief that we should always reach for excellence. That no matter how limited our talents or ambitions, we can always do better. And that doing better would feed on itself and encourage us to reach higher still, accomplishing more than we ever thought we could.

So, what to do with my memories of Marina and Yaakov, with the slide show running in my mind’s eye? How to remember them, to honour their accomplishments and their ideals? It seems obvious: a scholarship. But what kind? Where?

The answer seems obvious now: everywhere. An independent scholarship for piano and string students that can be used at any music school, or with any private teacher. A scholarship that honours not just my parents but all their students – teachers who took their knowledge, brought here from the Lost World of our past, and opened up schools of their own, in that most un-Soviet way. But most importantly a scholarship that supports our children – teenagers who choose to strive for excellence in music, but whose education costs more than many parents can comfortably afford. The Geringas Scholarship is for them.

– Eric Geringas, © 2017