The world got a whole lot more interesting on January 18th, 1965. That’s the day that my sister Randi Kirsten Berg was born. I can still remember the day when mom and dad brought her home from the hospital- wearing a bright red outfit – and she has been making a big splash in our family, to say nothing of the world, ever since.
There is so much to say about my sister that I hardly know where to begin, but I think one of the most remarkable things about her is that she is one of the most intellectually brilliant people I have ever known- and yet also one of the most tender-hearted. There is absolutely nothing that should make those two qualities mutually exclusive or even strange bedfellows, and yet a lot of us have this notion that with great intellect comes a certain clinical, cool arms-length attitude towards the world and especially towards other people. But my sister is a living, breathing demonstration of how that need not be the case. She is someone who earned nothing but A’s all the way through high school. . .all the way through college. . . all the way through graduate school and medical school . . . the kind of smarts that make Albert Einstein look like Ray Romano. (She’s so smart, she can rattle off the names of the seven bones of the wrist without looking them up. I’m lucky if I can keep the tibia and the fibula straight.) But coupled to that brilliance is one of the softest, tenderest hearts around. My sister is the kind of doctor who gets tears in her eyes as she talks about the gentle old man who unexpectedly died last week or the woman who just suffered her fifth miscarriage. . . or the little boy who came through his open-heart surgery with flying colors. I love that combination of brilliance and tenderness.(An interesting example of her tender-heartedness. The first time she watched the famous Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer special on T.V., she cried at the part where Rudolf was unkindly prevented by his schoolmates from joining in their reindeer games.)
But my sister has other gifts besides her four-digit I.Q. and her sweetness. She has a lovely singing voice and an abiding love for all kinds of music, but with a special affection for folk music. (When I come to visit, I can always count on hearing some of my sister’s new favorites.) In fact, one regret of mine which really sticks in my craw is that I didn’t manage to get home in order to see her performance as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella her senior year in high school. 25 years later, I still wish I could have seen her do that- and I can only hope that whatever kept me away was something really important, although I’m not sure what could have been more important than cheering on my sister. (I was in Lincoln, Nebraska at the time, and maybe it was just too long and costly a trip for me at the time.) Anyway, she sings so beautifully and expressively- and she and Matt are raising three children who love to sing almost as much as their folks do. (Go on my Listen page, and you can listen to Randi and her young son Kaj sing a couple of passages from Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. If it doesn’t give you a lump in your throat, you are obviously an alien from another planet.) Randi is also a very gifted photographer, and their home is filled with amazing, compelling photographs she has taken of various friends and family- the kind of photographs that could and should hang in an art gallery- the kind of photographs you can’t stop looking at.
Among the other things I appreciate about Randi is her deep appreciation of simple things and things out of the ordinary – and especially her appreciation for those quiet corners of the world where unexpected delights can be enjoyed. I remember her raving about a movie theater down in Asheville, NC (where they used to be) in which the seating consisted of a crazy assortment of sofas, love seats, recliners, etc. and people could watch old movies on the big screen for a very reasonable fee designed for the whole family. . . or singing the praises of a small company in Madison (for which she used to volunteer) whose sole mission was to adapt computers so they could be used by people with serious disabilities. . . or sharing about their dear friends and future neighbors who live completely off of the electrical grid, and have for years. . . For as rich and interesting as my life is, I don’t think I have made room for the unexpected the way Randi has, and I sort of envy that about her.
She has been on extraordinary adventures to extraordinary places as well, and I am especially amazed and impressed that she decided to live and work for a year in Norway shortly after college- despite knowing very little of the language. Last night I re-read some of the letters she sent me from Norway, in which she went to great lengths to reassure me that she was having a fantastic time (I had expressed my doubts that she should go) even while stating rather earnestly that it’s probably not something I would enjoy. And she’s right- back then, especially, she knew me very very well. (Just hearing about some of the food she had to eat was enough to scare me off. The family for whom she was a nanny prepared a lot of American meals, but in that little town of Bo you couldn’t buy the kind of ingredients we take for granted here- so they would use ketchup for spaghetti sauce or spread fish gravy on pizza. There aren’t enough picturesque fjords in all of Scandinavia to compensate for pizza made with fish gravy.) But for her it was an incredible year in which both the wonderful things and difficult things were all blessings of one kind or another- even the trial of attending church services entirely in Norwegian and hanging on every word of the sermon in the hopes that she would come away understanding a kernel or two of what was being said. What a great learning moment- and one of many for her during that year. (Marshall and I will still chuckle from time to time about how Randi spent some of her time in Norway learning an almost extinct kind of handiwork called Smoyg. Pardon my grammar when I say “That is so Randi!”
And Randi, although a serious person in many ways, loves to laugh . . . and laughs much more at herself than anyone or anything else. I remember during at one point during either high school or college when Randi earned a very prestigious academic award (she could have filled a trophy room with them) and the local newspaper misspelled her name in the caption under her picture: Roni Berg. A lot of people would have been hurt or incensed or both. Roni laughed even more heartily than we did – and loves to laugh about her faults and foibles. (As my/our mom did.)
Speaking of which. . .I could give a little extra texture to this portrait by talking about other facets of my sister that might be uncharitably regarded as faults . . . such as what I might delicately describe as her lack-of-love-for-housekeeping (a trait I share to some extent, as any of you who have seen my car will readily attest). . . or a soft-spoken yet strong-as-steel stubbornness that we manage to bring out in each other from time to time. . . or an inattentiveness to the phone which we also have in common. . . but I don’t think any of those things should even be mentioned here, do you? I would rather talk about all the traits about my sister which make me so proud of her and so glad that she was born 45 years ago. And I would rather say some important things that need to be said, such as:
Sorry I taped your eyelids shut that one day when you were laying on the living room floor, sleeping.
Thanks for teaching me Pathwords ( a game on Facebook) even though I’m now a hopeless addict.
I’m glad you survived that terrible car accident you were in almost 40 years ago which left you only with a few scratches on your arms (from crawling out the car through a broken back window) – and a very strong aversion to the Walt Disney film “The Love Bug,” which gave you nightmares.
I know you love living in Decorah, but I sure wish you and your family lived closer so our gatherings wouldn’t be so infrequent and so brief. (My wife and her sister live five miles apart. Now that’s how it’s supposed to be!)
For all the successes you have earned in your life, I am especially proud of how great a mom you are – and from somewhere high above us, someone named Bev is looking down and smiling at the wonderful life you are helping to give your three beautiful children.
and most of all, Jeg elsker Dig. . . which in Norway is how they say “I love you.”
pictured above: Randi with the beautiful horse that belongs to her daughter/ my niece, Anna. Randi loved horses when she was growing up but we could no more have afforded a horse than we could have afforded a yacht. . . so I’m sure it gives her a very special joy to be able to make this happen for Anna.