Posted in Dharma Talk, Essay, Meditation, memoir, Poets/Writers, Priscilla Galasso

Honoring My Father

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.

Grandpa George

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.

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

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004PRISCILLA GALASSO ~ started her blog at scillagrace.com to mark the beginning of her fiftieth year. Born to summer and given a name that means ‘ancient’, her travel through seasons of time and landscape has inspired her to create visual and verbal souvenirs of her journey. Currently living in Wisconsin, she considers herself a lifelong learner and educator. She gives private voice lessons, is employed by two different museums and runs a business (Scholar & Poet Books, via eBay and ABE Books) with her partner, Steve.

Author:

I began this blog when I entered my 50th year of life. I have always enjoyed writing and taking photographs. My sister did a profound personal photo project the year she was turning 50, so once again, I followed in her footsteps, taking her idea and doing it my way. My life has changed dramatically in recent years, and I have changed with it. My husband died, my kids moved out, I sold our home and moved in with a tall, dark Scorpio. I suppose I have a lot to process, and I'm sure there will be more.

14 thoughts on “Honoring My Father

  1. It’s good to read about a family that loves one another. Sometimes it’s seen in the deepest current or floating on the surface and other times in an eddy. Thanks for sharing

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  2. This touched me so very deeply, Priscilla. You gave yourself and your family the opportunity to move beyond the surface of appearances and, above all, you gave your father the gift of being able to understand himself and come to terms with his life as it had unfolded. Strongly recommended for all who still have the precious gift of a father. Just yesterday I wrote the dedication of my next book to my fathers–the man who give me life who I never knew (KIA WWII), the grandfather who stepped in for him for 7 years and the wonderful man who raised me. Blessings.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this story, Scilla. What an inspiration it was to capture your father’s memories while you still could. As you say, it was a gift tot he whole family. Did your father ever reconcile with your oldest sister?

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    1. No, he did not reconcile with her in any conscious way. (She’s not my oldest sister, but my older sister, actually.) After he lost all concept of who she was, she would visit him in the nursing home and give him gentle hand massages. (She’s a massage therapist.) I think her children only met him once in the nursing home, when he had no idea who they were. She and Nature did the reconciling, really.

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          1. Dear Scilla,
            After I responded to your comment, I had more thoughts about it and regretted not taking more time to articulate my response. Your answer is the prompt I needed to voice them. Indeed one of those thoughts was that you too had a huge capacity for forgiveness. Another thought was that you and your sister are modeling forgiveness for your children, which is a priceless gift that will serve them well in this life.

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            1. Thank you, Naomi, for your presence with us in this story. Yes, it is a person’s responsibility and right to model life values, for the benefit of all whom our lives touch. Practicing awareness, forgiveness and acceptance gives rise to compassion – organic, rising-from-the-heart love that will help us know how we want to navigate many waters. It takes a long time to get over the habits that make us want to get all OMG! about situations. I guess I call that ‘maturity’. One of the great things about being over 50 and no longer a teenager! Compassion is worth the loss of youth, in my book.

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  4. Thanks, Jamie, for giving me a platform to share this story. It is my hope that it may attest to the worthiness of making the effort to understand and know the influential people in our lives. We often live in wonder, assumption or torment simply because we do not ask (which sometimes makes a great piece of literature, but not great peace).

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  5. What a rich gift to yourself, your dad and the rest of your family. It is diffiult to know and understand our parents in the context of their own time and place. How fortunate that you had the impulse to ask your questions before the worldless realm took over the domian of communication. Thank you for sharing this story and the photographs. I love the one with you balanced on your dad’s feet. Perfectly wonderful, Priscilla. A treasure.

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