Monday, October 31, 2016

Nedra Berland

Lois Rosenthal, Philanthropist (my image of Nedra)
"Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.” Thus James Salter begins his description of Nedra in Light Years [1975]. “Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing.”

She was born in Altoona, to a nondescript family in about 1930. At 17 she turns into a stunning beauty. When she marries Viri, an architect, he sees her as a woman “condemned to live with him. He could not define it. She had escaped. Perhaps it was more; the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last. Her face radiated knowledge. … She had accepted the limitations of her life. It was this anguish, this contentment which created her grace.”

Nedra and Viri live in a house on the banks of the Hudson with their two daughters, Franca and Danny. The book begins as a meditation on their life and their home. They go into New York often, to art galleries, to eat and to shop; they have wonderful conversations with friends at dinner; and they indulge their children with extravagant stories, puppets, pets and Easter egg hunts. In the summer they go to Amagansett. “Summer is the noontime of devoted families. It is the hour of silence when the only sound is sea birds. The shutters are closed, the voices quiet. Occasionally the ring of a fork.”

But Nedra and Viri are both having affairs. Viri is not very successful. Nedra wants to live in Europe. At 16 Franca tells Nedra, “I want to be like everyone else, not like you.” Nedra and Viri do go to London and Kent, finally, in 1970. English friends tell them: “I’m more or less obsessed with the idea of your country which has, after all, meant so much to the entire world. I find it very disturbing now to see what’s happening. It’s like the sun going out.”

Upon their return, Nedra and Viri divorce. By this time Franca at 20 and Danny at 18 both have boyfriends. Nedra leaves immediately for Europe. “She felt confident, a kind of pagan happiness. She was an elegant being again, alone, admired.”

When Nedra returns to the United States, she interviews with an experimental theatre group because she has been taken with their work. They reject her because is already 43, but she becomes the lover of one of the actors, living in a studio among the warehouses in New York. “A breakfast of chocolate and oranges. Reading, falling again into sleep. He said very little. They were deep in contentment; it was full, beyond words. It was like a day of rain.” “Your life,” Nedra’s friend tells her, “is the only real one I know.”

Danny marries. Nedra arrives at the wedding with Viri. Nedra weeps with Danny, wiping tears from each other’s faces. That summer Nedra and Franca live at the beach. “Her [Nedra’s] life was like a single, well-spent hour. Its secret was her lack of remorse, of self-pity. She felt herself purified. The days were cut from a quarry that would never be emptied. Into them there came books, errands, the seashore, occasional pieces of mail. She read them slowly and carefully, sitting in the sunshine, as if they were newspapers from abroad.”

But Nedra did not last much longer. She became ill, taking a small house by the sea. Franca comes to visit her. Nedra believes that the love of one’s children is the best love. “To be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by one’s own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy.” She died suddenly, in the fall of the year. “As if leaving a concert during a passage she loved.” Her daughters have a small funeral for her. Viri has been living in Italy. He comes home to walk in the garden of the house by the Hudson where he had been happy. “Those afternoons that would never vanish, all ended. He, resettled. His daughters, gone.”

For some readers, these lives which are blessed with so little to worry them may seem unreal. For me, they seem like some of the last lives to celebrate reality: sensual, joyous and content, without a flicker of television in them. Salter writes in his memoir Burning the Days, “Of those years, the 1960s, I remember the intensity of family life, its boundlessness. It was an art of its own – costume parties; daring voyages in an old sailboat, a leaky Comet, far out on the river; dogs; dinners; poker on Christmas night; ice skating.”

Nedra was a woman James Salter knew, as described here. In Burning the Days he writes: “I loved her, her frankness and charm, the extravagance and devotion to her children. I never tired of seeing her and listening to her talk. … Hers was a singular life. It had no achievements other than itself. It declared, in its own way, that there are things that matter and these are the things one must do.” He has given us an exquisite portrait of a woman, of a life.