My father never made a big deal about days like today. He wholeheartedly appreciated any modest gifts I might give him–a tie, cufflinks, a gift card to Long Horn Steakhouse–but he didn’t expect them, and he never considered them to be his due. What he loved best were probably the photos I sent, especially the photo books I made for him. He wasn’t enamored of stuff. Daddy was, or at least seemed to be, to an almost extraordinary degree, perfectly content with his life in terms of the material and the intangible.
While Daddy wasn’t one for long telephone conversations, he valued a quick call on Father’s Day or his birthday. I’d say I loved him, he’d say he loved me. These weren’t just words, although we said them often. In recent years, upon hearing my voice on the line, he usually said, “You sound like my little girl.” Those words were a comfort. I could hear the laughter in his voice, see the smile in his eyes. They affirmed that I would always be his little girl. And I could always be certain of my father’s love.
My ears won’t hear Daddy say those familiar words today. But they echo in my mind, and I will treasure them in my heart, forever. How blessed I am to be my father’s girl.
Elvis the Cat was my friend Doug’s beloved companion. Doug passed away almost two years ago, after a long, hard-fought battle with the rare disease syringomyelia. (See Remembering Doug, February 2012.) During Doug’s last years, when his illness had deprived him of nearly all mobility, Elvis must have been an especially great comfort. After Doug died, Elvis was there to offer love and support for Doug’s wife. Now Elvis has gone on to his eternal reward. He was eighteen years old. Like Doug, he was a unique character. Like Doug, he will be greatly missed.
During visits to my parents in Atlanta, my daughter and I enjoyed dropping in to talk with Doug, who never failed to entertain; his love of life remained robust no matter his level of discomfort. If we lingered a while, we would usually be graced by Elvis’s regal presence. He was reserved around all but immediate family, not one to dole out affection indiscriminately. Elvis was especially wary of children. As Doug advised D when she was a preschooler, Elvis didn’t appreciate loud voices and sudden movements. She took this advice to heart, and it often paid off. Elvis would first peer in from the hall, sizing us up with his cool yellow cat eyes. Sometimes he decided we weren’t worth his time. With a flip of his tail, he’d disappear. Other times he gave us the OK and approached tentatively, gracefully, on tip-toe. D was delighted when he decided to settle in beside her, allowing her to stroke his abundantly fluffy black fur and hear his deep, growly purr.
Doug’s wife told my mother that although the house feels oddly empty, now that Elvis is no longer there, she has much to be thankful for. She is grateful that Elvis was with Doug until the end, and that he stayed a while afterwards to offer solace as she began the process of adjusting to life without her husband. Anyone lucky enough to be helped through a difficult time by the precious comfort of a pet must know the feeling.
Rest in peace, dear Elvis. It was our good fortune to know you.
My friend and former boss Gudmund Vigtel died last month at the age of 87. For nearly thirty years, Vig, as he was generally known, was the face and guiding force of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. He became the museum’s director in 1963, when it was a fledgling institution in a provincial backwater, housed in a nondescript building adjacent to its first home, the Peachtree Street mansion of the High family.
Vig led the High through two pivotal periods of extraordinary growth. In June of 1962, 106 of Atlanta’s most prominent arts patrons, returning from a museum-sponsored trip to Europe, were killed when their plane crashed on take-off at Orly Airport in Paris. Since Atlanta’s founding in 1836 as Terminus, the end point of a railway hub, its citizens have tended to value business over culture. But they are a resilient lot, determined not to be bested. The Orly tragedy, like General Sherman’s burning of the city during the Civil War, inspired a deeply felt resolve to regroup and rebuild, bigger and better. Gudmund Vigtel, then assistant director at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., was hired to head up the new, expanded arts facility to be known as the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center.
Vig must have stood out as a cosmopolitan, dashing European figure in the Atlanta of the early 60s. Born in Jerusalem to Lutheran missionaries from Norway, he had lived in Vienna and Oslo before his family fled (on skis, as I’ve always heard) from Nazi-occupied Norway into Sweden. But Vig had Georgia ties as well. Having studied art in Sweden, he received a Rotary Scholarship that first took him to a small college in north Georgia. It was not a good fit. He recounted how he spent lonely afternoons sitting on a big rock, asking himself, Why am I here? Before long, he managed to transfer to the Atlanta College of Art, where the more urban environment suited him better.
I met Vig during the second pivotal period of his tenure at the High. During the 1970s he became increasingly convinced that his museum was still too small. When, in 1977, the blockbuster King Tut show bypassed Atlanta for New Orleans because the High lacked sufficient exhibition space, it was clear that Vig was right. He launched an impassioned campaign for a considerably larger and more striking building. Despite the board’s initial preference for a local architect, he managed to persuade them to choose the as yet unproven Richard Meier of New York. Meier would go on to to design the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to win the Pritzker Prize for architecture.
I had the good fortune to work for Vig as Secretary to the Director during the High’s first two years in the new Meier facility. (There are, of course no secretaries at the museum now, or perhaps anywhere; they have been promoted to other titles, if not in salary.) Thanks to my dentist, a family friend, avid art collector and museum patron, I learned about the job opening. It was the summer of 1983, and I had just graduated from UGA with a degree in Art History. I was coming to terms with the realization that this was, as I had suspected, hardly a golden key to a lucrative or, perhaps, any career. Luckily, I could type. I applied at the High. I wasn’t hired; there was a better, faster typist. About three weeks later, I got a call from the museum. The other applicant hadn’t worked out, for various reasons. When Vig had referred, for example, to the artist Botticelli in his dictated letters, this secretary had repeatedly transcribed Buddy Chelly. Was I still interested?
The postmodern Meier building, its undulating facade clad in white enamel tile, was due to open that October when I began work in July. The offices had just moved into the new quarters, but the galleries and atrium remained unfinished. Heavy plastic sheeting kept some of the dust out but did nothing to diminish the loudness of the construction noise. The pace of construction was quick and constant, and it only added to the excitement of working at the museum. I loved my front-row seat in the living theatre that was staging the airy new building’s completion. And I soon became fond of my boss and the rest of the museum staff.
Many of us spend our lives knowing and regretting that we have not yet hit upon the perfect career fit. Vig found his, it would certainly seem. He had a broad knowledge and true devotion to art of various genres and styles. But he lacked any trace of pretense or conceit; he bore no resemblance to the stereotypical artsy intellectual. Not a single aspect of the life of the museum was beneath him, and he was apparently tireless. What’s more, Vig had a real gift for the human connection; he was thoughtful, warm, empathetic, funny and charming. He inspired the best in every staff member, and we held him in high regard.
As Vig’s dramatic vision for the new building was nearing completion, it was a heady time to be part of the HMA team. The museum opened on schedule in October, with a dizzying flurry of celebratory events held in the soaring central atrium. Vig treated his staff with the same respect and courtesy as the most generous or sought-after patrons. HMA parties were equal-opportunity events. Security guards danced with curators; art handlers and secretaries rubbed elbows with Atlanta’s civic leaders and the occasional celebrity. Vig was always there at the heart of the party, like a joyful father of the bride, surrounded, in his elegant home, by those he loved best.
Vig’s oddly spelled Norwegian name confounded most homegrown Southerners. Yet its pronounciation was straightforward: Good mund Vig tel, with the accent on each first syllable. I was amazed by the vast volume of unsolicited letters (many of them very strange, to say the least) that the museum received. The majority of these erred comically in the spelling of Vig’s name. They variously addressed him as Gudmund Viglet, Gudmund Vigtoe, Goodmood Vigel, Goodood Wigtel and even, somehow, Tubmund Eigtel. Vig never took himself too seriously, and he found these permutations as amusing as I did. He also laughed and reassured me when I realized, too late, that one of the letters I typed had gone out to Ms. Roberta Goizueta instead of Mr. Roberto Goizueta, then the Chairman of Coca-Cola.
Vig’s impact on the arts of Atlanta was profound. Like so many others whose lives he touched, I will think of him often, and with affection. In my mind I see him now, and it’s 1985. He’s coming back from checking a new painting in the galleries, crossing the wide atrium. He’s walking his characteristically jaunty walk, grey curls bouncing a bit, suit slightly rumpled. As he approaches, I hear him speak my name in the Norwegian accent he never lost, and I see the customary twinkle in his eye. Gudmund Vigtel will be greatly missed, but lovingly and gladly remembered.
On this T-shirt, made c. 1985 by the HMA staff to celebrate Vig’s birthday, he is surrounded by some of the more egregiously erroneous misspellings of his name, collected from letters. Vig’s uncharacteristically gruff expression was intended for comic purposes. I wish I hadn’t worn the shirt for painting; the splotch on Vig’s jacket is a later, accidental addition.
The weather is beautiful today here in northern Virginia. The sky is clear and blue, the sun is bright, and the crisp, fresh promise of fall is in the air. Eleven years ago, September 11 began just as gloriously. We had no idea what was coming.
This morning, as I typically do on every September 11 since 2002, I find myself keeping an eye on the clock as 8:46 approaches. Anything I might say about my memory of that day runs the risk of sounding trite or self-important, so I won’t attempt it. All I can do is offer my prayer, in hopes that its power will be magnified as it joins and rises with the great cloud of kindred prayers around it.
On this September 11, I ask for God’s blessings on all those whose lives were irrevocably and tragically altered on that terrible day. For the thousands who died, and for the many more loved ones who grieve for them. For the children who grew up without a parent, for the spouses whose partners never returned, for the grandparents who became parents to their lost children’s children. For those whose pain still pierces, and for those who suffer guilt because some healing has taken place, because cherished memories have dimmed.
I give thanks for the many heroes who sacrificed their lives or endangered their health on that day to save strangers. For the firefighters, police and rescue workers who bravely answered the call to duty. For unlikely individuals, like the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who rose to the daunting challenge.
I give thanks for the unity we feel as a nation each year on September 11. I pray that it might outlast this one day. In the poisonous political atmosphere of this election year, may it inspire us to set aside our bitterness, for a while, at least, so that we might work together.
And, most of all, I thank God for the good that always comes from bad, even if, in our sorrow and anger, we may not see it until months or years later.
May we be especially receptive to the vitality of God’s blessings on this September 11. I pray that we will feel God’s mercy and love descending on us all, from out of the blue.
Two weeks ago today, my friend Doug passed away. Doug had a zest for life that never flagged, despite the direness of the situation. He was a character. He was great company. He will be sorely missed.
Doug was known for his sharp memory, keen sense of humor, and flair for observing the odd detail, qualities that made him a compelling storyteller. He had copious amounts of material to draw on, including high school days in his native Seattle, where one of his classmates was Jimi Hendrix.
Doug had an exceptional ability to talk to anyone about anything. What’s more, he could make the exchange interesting. Early in his career he worked for the CDC in the effort to combat the spread of syphilis. He coached interviewers on effective methods for talking with syphilis patients about those to whom they may have spread the disease. If anyone could make a conversation about VD less uncomfortable, perhaps even verging on enjoyable, it was Doug. Not simply a skilled talker, Doug was a thoughtful listener and an engaging conversationalist. He delighted in the give and take of a spirited conversation. He would have been in his element with Samuel Johnson in the clubs and coffeehouses of eighteenth-century London, or with the circle of the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens.
Doug found his true calling in his career with the Fulton County Public Defender. His outlook made him uniquely suited to the position. He had a profound respect for all people. He empathized especially with underdogs and with those who had been dealt life’s poor hand. Doug took pleasure in getting to know his clients. He could see their admirable qualities despite the shadows of their terrible decisions and ill-advised deeds.
Doug was a dapper dresser with a discerning eye. For years, he and my father made an outing of the annual sale at Muse’s, the old Atlanta menswear store. Doug recognized style wherever it appeared. I remember his remarking on the classic élan of one of his clients who happened to be a transvestite. He was so impressed with her smartly tailored dress and lovely jewelry that, with a thought to his wife’s upcoming birthday, he asked for shopping references.
For the past two decades, Doug had suffered from syringomyelia, a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease. It began with a disturbing loss of balance first noticed during his neighborhood jogs. Over the years, it progressed at varying rates, leading toward a nearly complete loss of physical mobility and bringing with it a host of related issues. As the disease accelerated, Doug never lost his dignity or his ability to laugh. When he could no longer work, his computer and the Internet served as lifelines to keep him mentally active and in touch with his many friends and acquaintances. He continued to be a force in the legal community, appearing remotely on several occasions as a commentator on Court TV.
During our visits to Atlanta, my daughter and I liked to stop in to see Doug on our walks to the park. He and I discussed recent events and swapped memories of former neighbors. Doug was a great resource for entertainment trivia, and he never forgot names. He knew, for example, that Rashida Jones, who had just begun appearing on The Office, was the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. Doug and I liked similarly offbeat movies and TV shows. I regret that I never got the chance to ask him if he watched Justified. Its dark, ironic humor would have appealed to him, I think. And in its colorful, flawed characters, he may have seen glimpses of his former clients.
When my daughter was very young, her primary motivation for stopping by Doug’s house (other than to marvel at his futuristic wheelchair) was the chance to see the elusive and fabulously fluffy Elvis the cat. Elvis is shy and typically avoids children. If we stayed long enough, though, he would usually appear from beneath the sofa, or slink in furtively from another room. After staring intently for a while, he sometimes allowed my daughter to pet him. Doug told D it was because she behaved in a calm and grown-up manner that Elvis was willing to trust her. But he didn’t condescend to children, and D came to enjoy talking with him as much as I did. She appreciated his addressing her as a full-fledged person, even when she was a preschooler. Doug asked interesting questions, and he heard her responses. He avoided the painful clichés children must often endure from well-meaning adults.
Doug’s devoted family was his greatest treasure. He never bragged, but he adored sharing amusing anecdotes about his beautiful wife and daughter, his handsome son. He chose Christmas and birthday gifts for his wife with the utmost care. To preserve the surprise, he had her presents sent to my parents’ house, where my mother would wrap them. Sometimes, however, his gifts needed no festive paper. As his illness increasingly confined him, he treated his wife to unusual thrills with an emphasis on motion: a flight in a hot air balloon, a ride in a speeding racecar. Doug was a NASCAR devotee. Anyone who thinks all NASCAR fans are cut from the same cloth never met Doug. His elegant wife is an even less likely fan, but under the influence of his enthusiasm, she became a convert.
After so much of his life spent in hospitals, subjected to a dizzying array of treatments and procedures, Doug took his last breath at home, asleep in his own bed. I like to think that where he is now, the opportunities for fascinating conversation are even more abundant. And he has no need, anymore, for that cool wheelchair.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.