Born on Sept. 11, 7-year-old Nova Berger can’t escape the significance of her birthday
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
This year for her birthday Nova Berger is going to have a homemade cake with a cheetah on top.
Her dad, architectural draftsman Keith Berger, is going to bake the cake, as he has done every year since her first-birthday party in 2004. That year it was a kitty; other years’ themes have included flying unicorns, Tinkerbell and a dragon. Daddy, it turns out, is quite the baker.
Nova’s mom is Bianca Flikweert, a former ad sales representative for WSTM-Channel 3 who is now regional sales manager for an orthopedic products firm. “Nova has millions of friends,” she says. “She’s just a happy kid.” Many of those friends will be coming over next weekend to play a game Nova learned in Girl Scouts, called Blood Trail. It’s not as nasty as it sounds: The kids divide into two groups, the bunnies and the wolves, and the bunnies get a bottle of ketchup and a five-minute head start.
How do you win? “It isn’t really a winning game,” says the blonde and somewhat reticent Nova, sitting on her mother’s lap in the renovated barn they live in at the edge of the village of Nelson, not far from Cazenovia. The family shares the home with two cats and two dogs; a horse named Fay that both Nova and Bianca love to ride rests in a corral outside.
Nova first heard that her birthday had a different meaning for older folks when she attended a Memorial Day parade in 2006, as she was nearing the end of kindergarten. There was a moment of silence in remembrance for the people who died on Sept. 11, 2001. “I was in a Girl Scout parade,” she recalls, “and they said Sept. 11 and they prayed and they said it was a sad day. I said, ‘Mom! It’s Sept. 11—that’s my birthday!’” Bianca knew all along that the question was coming, and she told Nova that they would talk about it when they got home. And when they did, “I told her that it was a special day, and basically told her what had happened.”
Nova entertains herself by reading a book. She is completely enamored with the Geronimo Stilton books, a series about a newspaper reporter who is really a mouse; she has read 40 of them. Her mom explains that she actually was eager to give birth before the clock struck midnight on Sept. 11, 2003. “Nova was born at 12:43 a.m. We really tried for Sept. 10. ” (Her due date was Sept. 13.) Nova interrupts. “I don’t want to be born on Sept. 10.”
Her mother continues. “Some things you just can’t control. We had several names picked out: Emma, Vita, and Quinn if it was a boy. But that went out the window with Sept. 11. We decided to give it a positive twist. Her name is Nova, which means “new life.” We knew that a lot of people would have a reaction when you talk about celebrating a birthday on that date, so we went with Nova.
“We want to be respectful of families who lost a loved one, but at the same time it’s a day of celebration because our daughter came into our lives on that day. We remember what happened, but we don’t partake in ceremonies. It’s a joyful day for us.”
This year Bianca, a native of the Netherlands, will have another reason to celebrate. Last month, after 15 years of living in Syracuse, she became a U.S. citizen. She first came here in 1995 as an exchange student at Syracuse University. She met Keith in the cafeteria at Sadler Hall, where he worked on the serving line. They lived in the Westcott area for many years before moving to Nelson five years ago and taking on the barn renovation project.
Ever the adventurous couple, they embarked on a cross-country RV trip weeks after Nova was born. Five years ago Keith left his job at Enable and dedicated himself full time to the painstaking labor of converting the abandoned structure into a magnificent residence. Around the same time he gave up his most dramatic hobby—hang-gliding—in favor of the domestic life. Their first winter in Nelson was spent in a trailer on the site. Nova was 3 and has no memory of that; her mother describes it as a challenge.
As for Nova, she’s getting ready to start third grade at Burton Elementary in Cazenovia, where she says she is very good at math. “Math is my favorite subject in school,” she says, “but my favorite subject is horseback riding.” Following in the footsteps of her mother, a lifelong horsewoman, Nova displays a raft of ribbons won in various equestrian competitions. Someday, she says, she’d like to be a banker or a doctor.
Bianca relates to Nova’s perception of Sept. 11 by recalling her own childhood in the Netherlands. “May 4 and 5 were the days of national liberation,” she recalls, “and for the older people it really meant something much more. For us it was a moment of silence in school and something we learned about. But you realize that time goes on, and changes the meaning of things.”
For Nova, it’s a chance to get together with her friends and eat her Dad’s special birthday cake. “It’s just a normal birthday,” she says, eyes wide in a smile that echoes her mother’s words. Life goes on. We don’t forget. But life goes on.