APPLE VALLEY, Minn. — If their mother had gone the traditional engagement route, there’s a decent chance the Bonnema sisters would not be center stage at Orchard Path retirement community.
“When they got engaged, my mother said to dad that she'd rather have a piano than a diamond,” Val Duininck says. “So, that was the beginning of us all having lessons.”
Val is 81 years old.
She's in good company.
Her favorite company.
“I'm Jan Goris. I'm 80 years old,” Val’s youngest sister says.
“I'm Carol Hall and I'm 83,” the next sister in line says.
The roster of Bonnema sisters is still not complete.
“Vicki Hall, 88,” says the oldest.
“The Bonnema sisters from Prinsburg, Minnesota,” Carol says for emphasis.
Four sisters, all in their 80s, who’ve packed the house at Orchard Path. Not just the seats, but the stairs, a second-floor walking bridge and the standing-room-only space in the back of the room.
Hundreds of people.
Jennifer Ackland, the music therapist at Orchard Path, has never seen a crowd like this.
“Normally, a piano recital on a random Wednesday at 2:30 might be, you know, 25 people,” she says.
But there is nothing normal about two sisters in their 80s playing one piano, while two more sisters in their 80 are playing another - simultaneously. All doing it well.
“They are very advanced piano players,” Jennifer, who also teaches piano, says.” I’ve never seen ladies that age with that ability to play.”
The sisters share the same snow-white hair made up in the same style, and wear matching vests, sparkling and adorned with musical notes.
But that’s not all that sets them together.
Jan and Val and Carol and Vicki could be role models for family harmony.
“We all stood up for each other in every one of our weddings,” Carol says.
Just a bride – and her three sisters – all for times.
“I am closer to any of my sisters than any of my friends,” Carol continues.
Their photo albums offer proof.
Hot tubs together.
And slumber parties.
Jennifer, the music therapist, smiles as she listens to the sisters rehearse. “It's like they're still teenagers,” she says.
Eighty-something teenagers, who can bicker with the best of them.
“I feel like you're playing a lot louder than we are,” Val says to her sisters seated at the other piano.
“Oh, and I think you're so terribly loud,” Carol retorts.
The music therapist listens from the next room, smiling at the banter.
“They’re telling the one to play more dynamics. Then, the other one says, ‘Worry about yourself,’" Jennifer observes with a laugh.
Yet, she’s noticed something else about their disagreements - how quickly they put them aside.
“Our love exceeds any differences we might have,” Jan says, “but it is God's grace.”
The sisters speak as if grace also led them to Jennifer. Vicki lives at Orchard Path, where she became acquainted with the music therapist.
When Jennifer learned Vicki was looking for a place to practice she offered her home, with two pianos in close proximity and a third not more than 15 feet away.
No longer would they need to rent a music studio to play together.
Not that they really minded.
“You know how sisters sometimes go out to lunch or go shopping?” Carol asks. “We go and rent a studio to play the piano for three hours.”
Yet only once, for their mother’s 90th birthday party, have the sisters played together publicly.
That is, until the Orchard Path concert.
Several well-polished songs were followed by a thunderous ovation and a bow, all four sisters bending at their waists in unison.
“All together,” Val instructs her sisters.
Plenty of grandmas have attended their grandchildren's piano recitals.
On a fall afternoon, the tables turned.
“She's my great grandma,” a proud Finley Hall says after handing Vicki a music-themed sketch she drew for the occasion.
"TJ Hall,” Vicki’s 11-year-old grandson adds. “She was great. I love watching her play piano every Saturday when I come over.”
This holiday season, there is joy in numbers.
Eight hands, 40 fingers, and 80s ladies.
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