George William Heigho II — born July 10, 1933, died March 19, 2010.
Today I want to honor my dad and tell you about how I eventually gave him something in return for all he’d given me.
My dad was the most influential person in my life until I was married. He was the obvious authority in the family, very strict and powerful. His power was sometimes expressed in angry outbursts like a deep bellow, more often in calculated punishments encased in logical rationalizations. I knew he was to be obeyed. I also knew he could be playful. He loved to build with wooden blocks or sand. Elaborate structures would spread across the living room floor or the cottage beach front, and my dad would be lying on his side adding finishing touches long after I’d lost interest. He taught me verse after verse of silly songs with the most scholarly look on his face. He took photographs with his Leica and set up slide shows with a projector and tripod screen after dinner when I really begged him. He often grew frustrated with the mechanics of those contraptions, but I would wait hopefully that the show would go on forever. It was magic to see myself and my family from my dad’s perspective. He was such a mystery to me. I thought he was God for a long time. He certainly seemed smart enough to be. He was a very devout Episcopalian, Harvard-educated, a professor and a technical writer for IBM. He was an introvert, and loved the outdoors. When he retired, he would go off for long hikes in the California hills by himself. He also loved fine dining, opera, ballet, and museums. He took us to fabulously educational places — Jamaica, Cozumel, Hawaii, and the National Parks. He kept the dining room bookcase stacked with reference works and told us that it was unnecessary to argue in conversation over facts.
Camping in Alaska the summer after his senior year in High School: 1951.
My father was not skilled in communicating about emotions. He was a very private person. Raising four daughters through their teenaged years must have driven him somewhat mad. Tears, insecurities, enthusiasms and the fodder of our adolescent dreams seemed to mystify him. He would help me with my Trigonometry homework instead.
Playing with my dad, 1971.
I married a man of whom my father absolutely approved. He walked me down the aisle quite proudly. He feted my family and our guests at 4 baptisms when his grandchildren were born. I finally felt that I had succeeded in gaining his blessing and trust. Gradually, I began to work through the more difficult aspects of our relationship. He scared my young children with his style of discipline. I asked him to refrain and allow me to do it my way. He disowned my older sister for her choice of religion. For 20 years, that was a subject delicately opened and re-opened during my visits. I realized that there was still so much about this central figure in my life that I did not understand at all.
In 2001, after the World Trade Center towers fell, I felt a great urgency to know my father better. I walked into a Christian bookstore and picked up a book called Always Daddy’s Girl: Understanding Your Father’s Impact on Who You Are by H. Norman Wright. One of the chapters contained a Father Interview that listed dozens of questions aimed at bringing out the father’s life history and the meaning he assigned to those events. I decided to ask my father if he would answer some of these questions for me, by e-mail (since he lived more than 2,000 miles away). Being a writer, this was not a difficult proposition for him to accept. He decided how to break up the questions into his own groupings and sometimes re-phrase them completely to be more specific and understandable and dove in, essentially writing his own memoirs. I was amazed, fascinated, deeply touched and profoundly grateful at the correspondence I received. I printed each one and kept them. So did my mother. When I called on the telephone, each time he mentioned how grateful he was for my suggestion. He and my mother shared many hours reminiscing and putting together the connections of events and feelings of years and years of his life. On the phone, his repeated thanks began to be a bit eerie. Gradually, he developed more symptoms of dementia. His final years were spent in that wordless country we later identified as Alzheimer’s disease.
I could never have known at the time that the e-mails we exchanged would be the last record of my dad’s memory. To have it preserved is a gift that is priceless to the entire family. I finally learned something about the many deep wounds of his childhood, the interior life of his character development, his perception of my sister’s death at the age of 20 and his responsibility in the lives of his children. My father is no longer “perfect”, “smart”, “strict” or any other concept or adjective that I could assign him. He is simply the man, my father. I accept him completely and love and respect him more holistically than I did when I knew him as a child. That is the gift I want to give everyone.
I will close with this photo, taken in the summer of 2008 when my youngest daughter and I visited my father at the nursing home. I had been widowed 6 months, had not yet met Steve, and was anticipating my father’s imminent passing. My frozen smile and averted eyes are fascinating to me. That I feel I must face a camera and record an image is somehow rational and irrational at the same time. To honor life honestly is a difficult assignment. I press on.