Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Nadia Berrigan

by Steve Sparks, April 21, 2011

I met with Nadia at her home on Signal Ridge a couple of weeks ago. She made us some coffee and we sat to talk...

Her father, Jack Upper, worked for the State Department at the time and he and Nadia’s mother, Claudia Reid, were living in Cairo, Egypt in 1953 when Nadia was born, the first of two girls — sister Elizabeth coming along three years later. The Uppers were possibly German Jews who had come to the States in the early 1800’s and settled in Michigan where they farmed the land, probably hiding from persecution there as Mennonite Christians — “denying their dark curly hair and their schnoz. My (paternal) grandparents moved to Detroit, but when my father was just five years old, my grandfather died at 45, and my father’s early life was marred by poverty. However, my father was extremely bright in school and later won scholarships to go to Yale and then the University of Michigan.” The Reids were of Scottish descent, Nadia’s grandfather being a lawyer in Detroit and her grandmother Overington was the heiress to a small fortune that her great-grandfather had earned from starting the first cotton mill in the North. This fortune was mostly decimated in the Depression.

Both of Nadia’s parents studied the Middle East in one way or another in College, where they met, while Jack was at Yale and Claudia at Wellesley. They were married in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. “My father worked for the Ford Motor Company and had learned to speak Arabic — lots of oil in that part of the world, and with this skill he went on to work for the State Department and then the World Bank. My first memories are when we returned from Egypt and after a brief stay in Maryland, we moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where I had a very pleasant childhood — one of the happiest times of my life. So much so that when things have gone badly for me, which they have, I draw on that time, on that ‘baby happiness’ that I had. My grandparents lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood with a maid and a gardener, and a local Country Club membership where I went swimming, sailing, and horseback riding, as I grew older and visited in the summers. My parents lived in an old farmhouse in the suburbs on the edge of Ann Arbor — a somewhat rural upbringing. Then when I was five my Dad got a job with the World Bank and we moved to Washington DC. Initially I was very excited but that first year there was hard. I had been very close to my grandparents (there were still three alive in Michigan at that point) — I had been the first grandchild — and my grandmother and I were particularly close. Then my beloved kindergarten teacher died of cancer and my father went on an extended business trips to Chile and when he came home things had changed between him and my mother and things got very complicated. Having said that, they stuck it out and are still together in their eighties to this day, but it was a very traumatic year for me.”

Nadia and her family lived in a very nice neighborhood, and had some very wealthy neighbors with huge mansions. “Our home was on a big lot with a beautiful garden, a fish pond, large patio, three terraces, and lots of large trees. “Gradually life became stable once more and I could run wild in the woods once again... My mother became a professor at the American University and my father continued traveling for work, often for months on end and he became a bit distant in my life. They were a very high-powered couple and asked a lot of my sister and me, although on a daily basis they did not particularly supervise us, and we were often left on our own. I learned to play the piano at an early age and really grew to love music. I also liked science subjects at school and took up photography at the age of nine. Then in junior high I began to put on weight and dieted for the first time — something that has always played a big part in my life. I certainly experienced a tough relationship with my parents in my teens and always felt a little on edge, unhappy in some basic ways.”

“In my teen years Washington DC was a very exciting place. I remember well the funeral of President Kennedy and watching the parade and the extreme mourning that everyone felt. I really got into the ‘big city’ life although it was not always good for me. There were lots of wild parties and I experimented, even though I was basically a 'good girl'. It was a very exciting time and being in the nation’s capital felt like we were at the hub of so much that was happening. I was a bit of a tomboy at that point, although I did have two very close girlfriends. We all experimented a little with sex as our high school years went by and I continued to go to some wild parties — it was a party town and we were exposed to lots of that... By the mid-sixties, my father and I were split politically and I rebelled in many ways. He had close friends in the government and in the CIA and I was this idealistic, hurt-girl acting out, and the family’s wild child.”

By her sophomore year, Nadia had a steady boyfriend, Russell from California, who was the son of an engineer on the Manhattan Project. “In the fall of 1969 the situation was getting explosive in D.C. with increasingly violent anti-war marches, and regular tear gas use by the police — it was everywhere. Then in May 1970 the killing of four students by the National Guard at Kent State University took place and the protests really stepped up even more. I graduated a year early, that June, and with a place at Tufts University waiting for me in the fall, I took the savings from my allowance — my parents had refused to let me get a job — and I caught a plane to California where Russell had returned to a few months earlier. Russell picked me up at the San Francisco airport and we went straight to Golden Gate Park to hang out. He had some hash on him and we were stopped by the police who searched him but they let us go — he had hid it on me!”

“My life has a soundtrack to it. I had grown up on Soul music in D.C. and before that Motown in Detroit — great music scenes in both cities. I had seen the Beatles live in DC, and now on the West Coast I got into the new music of the day — Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Cream, the Stones and Led Zeppelin etc. Meanwhile, I myself am playing Bach on the church organ! While that sounds like a complete contrast, Bach actually complemented those bands very well. We had a wild time that summer. He was very adventurous and it was not always pleasant but certainly exciting. Drugs were a big part of the scene at that time of course, marijuana was seen as something new and exciting, a ‘healthy’ experience even, not like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. That was generally shunned. It was what our parents did! I actually didn't enjoy smoking it, but everyone around me did. My time with Russell that summer of '70 was a little heaven on earth.”

Nadia and Russell drove across the country in the late summer in a 1950 Ford pick-up that could go no faster than 45mph. They stopped off in Detroit to see family and particularly her grandmother before continuing on and in the fall Nadia attended Tufts University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Russell got various hauling jobs. “It was a terrible winter and Russell had no work. I gave him my meal tickets at college and we were caught. I could have stayed but decided I did not want to be there and so in January 1971, Russell and I returned to California. My Dad was very disappointed, and in some ways it was one of the worst decisions of my life.”

Nadia and Russell rented a house in Lake County where she took her first job as a waitress at the Candyman Café in Clearlake Highlands. “I was hired by a so-called ‘witch,’ Joyce, who said I was a good girl at heart, (and so was she!). Russell and I split up that summer and I had a wild time after that before settling down and turning to religion. I joined a cult-ish group called The End Time Body. The people were very nice and it was a musical church, singing in tongues actually. I found it very cathartic and it was what I needed at the time, giving me stability and peace. I studied at the Mendocino Art Center that fall but then fell seriously ill. Thanks to a wonderful doctor and a spiritual healer I recovered, enough so that I could still have children. That was a wake-up call and it toned me down a lot. I needed to control myself and focus on school. I lived at the Antioch Ranch and became involved with the Christian community. From there I gravitated towards a more mainstream religious discipline and began to attend the Presbyterian Church in the town of Mendocino. To this day I still have faith and it underlies everything I do, including my teaching, and remains the basis for my refusal to acknowledge socio-economic boundaries.”

While at the Antioch Ranch, Nadia had met Gary Berrigan, and a couple of years later, in 1974, they were married. She was 21 and he was 25. She was working as a waitress at both the Seagull in Mendocino and at Navarro Inn-at-the-Sea further down the coast. “I had been unsuccessful at various retail jobs. I lacked the sales confidence that is needed; perhaps I showed too much sadness from my childhood. I took a position as a teacher’s aid working with kids with emotional difficulties at the Mendocino Grammar School and found that very interesting. I still had never really thought of any career at that point, although when I was fourteen I had taught African-American kids at the Unitarian church in DC.”

In October 1974 both Nadia and Gary enrolled at Humboldt State University and for the next five years they were students as Nadia also did various waitress jobs while studying teaching and fine arts. They paid just $55 month in rent, and grew most of their own food. “At that time the timber industry was aerially spraying the valley and the surrounding mountains with 2,4,5-T (agent orange), 2,4-D, and Garlon. We were very careful about our food and water supply, but I think it caused problems with our children.” She graduated in 1979 with a newborn baby, Suzanna, in her arms. Then Nadia’s grandmother gave her $10K to put down on a house in Blue Lake nearby, just outside Arcata, and Gary, who had studied geography and political science, got a job with the Coastal Commission. “I was a Mom and did a little teaching when I could — mainly piano lessons and a little art at a private school. Our second daughter, Caitlin, was born in 1981. She had a birth defect and following a blood transfusion she contracted hepatitis C at four months, which led to problems developing in her late teens. This is the tragedy of my life; her life too, but she is a remarkable woman and I am so proud of what she has achieved. Suzanna also had some problems at birth — a heart defect but that is under control and she can have surgery to take care of it, but she hasn’t yet. She is a very special young woman too and although our marriage was not good in many ways; it was very difficult at times in fact, but we were blessed with two great kids and Gary has been a big influence on my life.”

In 1985, when Gary got a job at the Mendocino County Planning department the family moved to Ukiah but after a year there he moved to the planning department in the Ft Bragg office on the coast and the family moved to Little River. Nadia went back to the grammar school in Mendocino but she did not get her teaching credential until 1991 so for a few years she was an aide and taught piano, while also working as a waitress at the Albion River Inn and taking a job at Glendeven Bed and Breakfast, south of Mendocino on the coast, where she managed their small art gallery, the housekeeping duties, and the Inn’s marketing. “I was doing some painting and still playing the organ at the church in Mendocino. I did that every Sunday for ten years or more, often taking the girls with me too. Gary and I worked through our problems. We did have lots of fun despite our different values with regards to parenting. I was very uptight and fearful but liked to socialize and have a drink with friends. Gary didn’t really have very many friends. It was a dysfunctional relationship. The girls did very well though.”

In 1997 Gary moved to a job with CalTrans in Eureka and began a weekly commute, and then in 2000 a temporary art teaching position opened up in Anderson Valley, which Nadia took and she drove in from the coast every day. “Suzannah (she had added the ‘h’ herself) eventually moved to the Bay Area where she met and married Steve and has a very good job in the insurance industry as well as having a little girl, Marissa, while Caitlin attended Andover High School in Massachusetts for three years, before getting her masters in art at MIT. Nadia continued to work on her own art over the years. “Much of it is based around plants and sex. I am a quintessential flower child. I came out of very rebellious times — rebelling against misogyny, sexual shame, war, racism, dress codes, etc, etc. We were exposing and uncovering all the shame that had gone on before in society about sexuality and many other things. Yes, art still excites me the most, although I do love music too.”

After two years of commuting, and with the temporary position of Art teacher at the high school having become permanent, Nadia came full-time to the Valley in 2002, moving into a lovely house on Steve and Janet Anderson’s property on Signal Ridge, high above the Valley. From 2006, she has also taken on the very demanding project of the school yearbook. “I didn’t know anyone here in the Valley, my friends were all on the coast and I still see them as much as I can. I also try to get back to the east coast to see family and friends and my parents who are still there — in Alexandra, Virginia. I guess I am a bit reclusive apart from the occasional dance or dinner with friends. Since 2001 I have played the piano in the Big Band and try to socialize with my fellow teachers sometimes. I also enjoy my walks with neighbor, Lee Serrie. Teaching is a passion. I learned to love art in DC where there are so many free museums. My parents love of history has also helped in my teaching and I value every kid and try to understand each and every one of them.”

I asked for Nadia’s brief responses to some of the issues that many here in the Valley frequently discuss...

The wineries and their impact? “They seemed to have doubled in number in a relatively short time and I do have concern for the land. We need to guard our soil; it is very precious. I hate to see vineyards grown on steep hillsides without terracing. Yes, the wineries bring prosperity and jobs but I am strongly opposed to the use of chemicals which some still use — organically produced wines are the way to go.”

The AVA? “I love the newspaper — it is awesome. I enjoy it on line too. It’s amazing that it is read all over the country. I find that I never have time to read it all but try to get to most of it. It is very entertaining, even spellbinding at times, and it is produced by a motley crew of characters!”

KZYX radio? “I live by the news on that station — it is my main way of getting news, many excellent programs are produced by such dedicated volunteers. I am appalled that Congress will not give support to NPR.”

The AV School system? — “I think we do a good job. We work really hard with this diverse population and continue to send many unlikely candidates to college who are well prepared. The education is available at whatever level a student is able to absorb it and work for it. Funding has been abysmal and some of our equipment is so out of date. We have a high-performing school, with high poverty; a small rural school. I am very proud of it.”

I posed a few questions to my guest from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and the rest I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Living in this Valley — my artistic senses just love its beauty.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Well, I have a hard time plowing through negativity. I also don’t like people’s power trips.”

Sound or noise you love? “The saxophone and the trumpet.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Too much loud machinery — trucks, planes, chainsaws.”

Favorite food or meal? “Pork medallions in a cherry Madeira sauce with asparagus and new potatoes, served with red wine — a heavy Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. I do like wine — I guess I live in the right place.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Gandhi.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “During the fires of 2008, I had to do that very thing. I first grabbed some family photographs, my birth certificate and passport, and some family heirlooms.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “The film might be ‘Restoration’. ‘Dangerous Beauty’ or ‘Like Water for Chocolate’... The book would be something by the Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz — he seems to really understand humanity, or perhaps something by Laurence Durrell or ‘’One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ by Tom Robbins — that sums up a lot of my thinking and philosophy about life, beauty, and the role of sex as the underlying force of life... That’s too many I know... Err, a song would be ‘Ballad for a Runaway Horse’, a Leonard Cohen sung by Jennifer Warnes. And of course Bach produced some of the most beautiful melodies ever written.”

Favorite hobby? “I still like to garden but it is not easy here with all the deer. Painting, music, and photography all remain big hobbies of mine.

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “I would have liked to have been employed at the Smithsonian in DC as their botanical illustrator of plants.”

Profession you’d not like to do? Waitress or nursing.”

Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “A summer I spent here in this house with a special person.”

What is something that you are really proud of and why? “Of being an accomplished pianist and painter. I am most proud of my two daughters. And of my understanding of people.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “When Caitlin graduated from Andover — the whole family was there. And when Suzannah got married.”

Saddest? “Being at the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself? “That I have ultimately been able to relax, finally; that I have a good sense of humor; that I am sensitive but also like to have fun.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Come on in, sweetheart.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com...

Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be The Interviewer himself — Steve Sparks, interviewed by his wife, Patty Liddy.

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