News your connection to The Boston Globe

Nina Schneider, at 94; turned from writing a novel to tending a garden

Herman and Nina Schneider, around 1990. The couple published the Schneider Science Series Herman and Nina Schneider, around 1990. The couple published the Schneider Science Series

Sitting in the book-lined living room of her Greenwich Village brownstone, Nina Schneider fielded questions about her fierce first novel, which had drawn critical acclaim a year earlier, in 1980, just as she turned 67. Many writers would have luxuriated in the newfound fame. She didn't exactly bask in the attention.

"For a woman to work seriously is to risk not being loved; to risk solitude; to risk disapprobation," she told an interviewer from the Christian Science Monitor.

Born before women were allowed to vote, raised decades before the seismic shift feminism would bring, she knew too well the travails of her novel's narrator, an older woman who fought to write amid the duties inherent in her many titles: daughter of, wife of, mother of, grandmother of. "Learning how to say no," she said that day, "may be a woman's hardest task."

Her first novel, "The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue," turned out to be her last. Moving with her husband to Martha's Vineyard, Mrs. Schneider was slowed by one stroke and lost her verbal abilities to a second. Instead of writing, she created gardens around their home in West Tisbury - visual poetry to replace the words that once flowed readily onto the page.

Mrs. Schneider died in her home Sept. 8 holding a rose from her gardens. She was 94 and had suffered from pancreatic cancer.

"If ever there was a visible expression of immortality, it is here, right now, here in the splendor of this garden of Nina's she created so lovingly and attentively," her friend Margaret Freydberg said last month at a memorial service when friends and family spread Mrs. Schneider's ashes among the flowers she had cultivated for more than 25 years. "It is such a literal blossoming of her immense creativity. It is her greatest poem."

The West Tisbury gardens, and the novel Mrs. Schneider had written in New York City, came after she and her husband, Herman, had spent decades publishing the Schneider Science Series - dozens of books for children that posed and answered questions for young minds.

The titles demonstrate the range of topics, from "Everyday Weather and How it Works" to "How Your Body Works," "Plants in the City," "How Scientists Find Out," and "Science Fun with Milk Cartons."

A teacher in the New York City school system, Herman Schneider handled the scientific aspects for the series, while his wife ensured the prose would enchant young readers.

"She was the poet of the pair," said her sister, Judith Singer of Los Angeles. "The books would have got done without her, but they would have lost an amazing amount. Her ear, her literary sense, really informed the books. It truly was a partnership."

Nina Zimet was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and moved to New York City as a child. She married in her late teens, moved to New Jersey and had a son, then divorced a few years later. Moving back to New York, she graduated from Brooklyn College and married Herman Schneider in 1941.

In their West 11th Street brownstone, Mrs. Schneider kept a room for her writing. As years passed, it eventually became the place where she learned to say no, where she carved out time to create poetry she published in The Nation and to begin the sketches that would become "The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue."

"I think it was a very big birthing process, her doing that book," said her granddaughter Daisy Colchie Eneix of San Francisco. "It consumed her while she was doing it."

Ariadne, the novel's narrator, shares a name with the goddess in Greek mythology who gave Theseus the thread that helped him find his way out of a labyrinth. Mrs. Schneider's protagonist, a Jewish matriarch, tries to thread her way through the maze that is her life.

"The experiences in that book are hers," Eneix said. "It's her own voice, and it's her own feelings and her own passions."

" 'The Woman Who Lived in a Prologue' was totally her vision of what was going on in herself," Mrs. Schneider's sister said.

A Newsweek review said the book was "funny and harrowing, tender and tough, difficult, smart, ambitious, and fiercely alive."

The Sunday Book Review in The New York Times called it an "astonishingly intelligent, erudite, witty and outspoken first novel."

The novel's subjects suggested that Mrs. Schneider's life could be volatile.

"She lived contradictions, and she spoke to me about them," her granddaughter Micaela Harari wrote in a message she sent from her home in Jerusalem to be read at the memorial service in West Tisbury.

"She wanted to do the familial thing. She wanted to cook dinners and all that stuff, and she didn't want to," Eneix said. "I think she was conflicted, and I don't think her conflict was just the conflict of her time. I think she puts it that way, but it was a personal conflict as well."

Still, Mrs. Schneider's intellect and her adoration of beauty turned visits into something magical.

"Nina was my sensual grandmother," Harari wrote. "Being in her home and in her presence was endlessly stimulating for me from the time I can remember. Harmony, aesthetic, and enjoyment were synonymous with Nina in my perception. I knew she approved of living well and valued creativity. As her grandchild, I felt celebrated."

Mrs. Schneider, her sister said, "was an aesthete in every possible way. Her homes were beautiful when this was not common."

Herman Schneider died in 2003. His ashes were spread in the gardens along with his wife's during last month's memorial service.

"I feel that Nina's spirit has become one with this garden and her spirit lives as it lives," Freydberg said during the service. "Few are graced in death so fittingly. Few are ever given leave to stay on earth in such demonstrable beauty."

In their last years, the couple had a caretaker and a gardener. And though the stroke had made speech nearly impossible for Mrs. Schneider, there were moments when words would suddenly reappear.

"We would bring out her art books if she had the energy to go through and look at pictures," Eneix said. "We'd turn to a picture of a Renaissance sculpture or a particular painting, and I would see her call up all her resources to tell me something about it. She would say, 'Look at that curve,' and she would say it perfectly."

In addition to her sister and two granddaughters, Mrs. Schneider leaves a brother, Julian Zimet of Rome; a son, Steven of Bordeaux, France; two daughters, Elizabeth of Manhattan and Lucy of Portland, Ore.; four other grandchildren; five step-grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

More from