If anyone deserves to be in Heaven, if it existed, it is our father. Other than the fact that he didn’t believe in God, he could be a saint.
Think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (not the racist one in Go Set a Watchman). I first read Mockingbird when I was fifteen. It was an old well-worn first edition paperback that had belonged to our grandmother, the one with the black cover and the arrows pointing into the mockingbird. I pulled it off a shelf and started reading, having little idea what a life-changing book it would be for me. At some point in the story, I realized that Harper Lee must have known our father. He was a country lawyer and an old-fashioned gentleman who always did the right thing and always knew the right thing to say at the right time. We were in Vermont instead of Alabama, and we weren’t as poor as the Finch family (who had a full-time maid and we didn’t have one at all!), but Atticus could have been a very realistic portrait of our father.
There is a scene early in the book where a poor farmer pays Atticus for legal services with a sack of hickory nuts, a scene was repeated at our house often. Our father made his living from wealthy clients but never denied service to someone who couldn’t pay. We had regular deliveries of baskets of fruit or vegetables, homemade beer or wine, hand-knitted blankets, and recently shot venison, which we gave to the neighbors since our father was a vegetarian. We also got hundreds of eggs and even sometimes live chickens, neither of which we needed, as we had a couple dozen chickens already. One gift that Kalfi and I appreciated was a baby peacock chick whom we named Pontius Pilot and kept as a pet for years.
Our father’s wealthier clients paid their bills in full, and some also gave expensive gifts too. Our father had one very important client who was so secretive and anonymous that we never learned his name, so we called him Mr. Flush. That was in part because Flush was flush, and in part because he once gave us a French antique toilet that resembled a medieval throne and had a real gold pull-chain handle. Other lavish gifts included, among many other things, a new Mercedes-Benz roadster, paintings by Verrochio, Picasso, Cassat and Chagal, and a marble nude by Cellini that scandalized our grandmother. Our father had little appreciation of art, but our mother and Mary did. Most of it was donated to a museum when our father died, but I still have the Mercedes. It gets about 75 miles added to it a year these days, because it gets about 8 miles per gallon of gas, and costs a fortune to maintain. I keep it because our father loved that car, not because he cared much about cars or material things generally, but because it was a symbol of his success.
As I have mentioned, our father was a man of regular, predictable habits and became annoyed if anything interfered with his routine. Six days a week, he woke up at 6:30 AM, left for work at 7:30, came home at 6 PM, had dinner with us at 6:30, and worked in his study until he went to bed at 10. Sundays, however, were for my brother and me. Except once a month or so when Kalfi and I went to church with our grandmother and Mary in the morning, we spent every Sunday entirely with our father.
He always had some sort of project or agenda for the day. Unfortunately, many of those projects were things at which he was terrible, namely anything mechanical or that required manual skill. He once bought a Volkswagen Beetle engine and took it apart in the garage. The idea was that we would put it back together like a puzzle and learn about how engines worked. We spent many days trying, but the garage floor was scattered with mysterious engine parts for nearly a year before our grandmother made him throw it all out so that we could put the cars in there for a change. One time he decided we would build birdhouses from scratch and donate them to the local non-profit adoption agency’s thrift store to sell a fundraiser. He had been the agency’s board chair for years. Those birdhouses were so sad-looking that nobody bought a single one, and they also were tossed away or perhaps used as kindling for someone’s wood stove. We kept what was to be the masterpiece, a large Victorian-style birdhouse in which no bird ever dared take up residence, probably because it looked more like a dilapidated haunted house than anything fit for a living creature.
The adoption agency was how our father came to be our father. His second cousin (or something like that), Mentor, knew our father well, as they had both served on the American Bar Association board and knew of his involvement with the agency. Mentor’s son and daughter-in-law were expecting a baby, but were too young and not ready to be parents. However, they wanted to maintain permanent contact with the baby as it grew and have a lifelong relationship. In those days, what is now called an “open adoption” was rare. When Mentor told our father of the situation, our father said he had always wanted a child, had tried with our mother unsuccessfully for years, and offered to take the baby himself. What he didn’t know at first was that he was going to get two babies, for we turned out to be identical twins.
Viggo Rudolph Mathíasson was born in 1926. His father, grandfather, great grandfather and so on had all been officers in the Navy and lawyers, so it was pretty clear what he was going to do with his life. He entered the U.S. Navy during World War II, eventually becoming an aviator in the Pacific Theater and rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, and then went to work for Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He met our mother and soon moved back to Vermont, where they were both from, to start his own law firm with his best friend, Mike Fingalsson.
I never met any of my paternal grandparents; they were all deceased when I was born. I will call our father Vig (rhymes with “league”) from now own, which is what our mother, grandmother and Aunt Mary called him. It’s easier to type over and over than “our father”, but we never called him by name, only Father.
You might have noticed that our parents and I all have different last names. In fact, in our little family of six, we had five different last names among us, only Kalfi and I had the same last name of Viggosson. That’s because in Icelandic tradition you don’t take your father’s last name as yours. You take your father’s first name as your last name, and add -sson onto it if you’re a boy and -sdóttir onto it if you’re a girl (the first S is possessive). So our mother was Jana-Anika Kristvensdóttir and her mother was Mímósa Mía Michaelsdóttir. Yes, mimosa like the drink, which is funny, because she was the only person in the family who never touched a drop of alcohol. We used to make mimosas for her using sparkling grape juice. Then there was Aunt Mary Michelin, like the tires and the restaurant review, but she wasn’t related to us by blood. She was French-American. All our animals, and there were many on our little farm, had names too, but the animals and their names weren’t Icelandic, except for some of the horses.
Many of the projects Vig had for our Sundays were not failures, and some grew to be an important part of my life ever since, and Kalfi’s until he died. Vig was an avid outdoorsman and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. Although he spent most of his waking life in business suits, he was much more at home in his Sunday khakis and flannel shirts. He knew every tree, wildflower and animal, and had a special fondness for birds, butterflies and dragon/damselflies. We hiked, camped, canoed, kayaked, snow-shoed, skied and ice skated, or just sat and looked up at the sky while he told us all about the different types of clouds or the constellations of stars in the night. He had grown up in this same small town, so he knew everything about it. He inspired a love of nature that is very much with me today.
I remember one June evening after sundown we heard Vig shouting down from his bedroom, “Prince Tarfi and Kalfi, come quick!” We ran upstairs, and he was hopping up and down with excitement. There outside on the window screen was an enormous celadon-green luna moth, the biggest any of us had ever seen. “Isn’t it magnificent!” he shouted with tears in his eyes. We sat there for a long time watching it until it flew off into the night and disappeared.
Soon after I re-purchased Darling Hill Farm decades later in 2003, also in late June, I spotted a nearly identical giant luna moth on the same window screen in the bedroom. I thought of our father, and this time I had tears in my eyes. I have never seen another luna moth at any of the windows in this house since then.
Music may be Vig’s most meaningful legacy for me. Vig had no musical ability whatsoever, but he loved to listen to it. He started us on piano lessons through the Suzuki Method when we were three, and Kalfi went on to learn the violin starting when he was five. I tried violin, but I never liked it and stuck to piano. Kalfi became a real violin prodigy, however, and we loved playing piano-violin duets together. He recorded Bach’s violin sonatas and he and I recorded Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, both with Decca, but they kindly honored my request not to release them after Kalfi’s suicide. I listen to the tapes sometimes, which I transferred to digital format on my computer, but it is difficult. We also enjoyed writing music, and in high school we started a rock band that had some success for a short while. I enjoy playing piano now, but had a long lapse in my twenties and thirties, so I am not nearly as good. I get frustrated with it easily, so I perversely don’t play as much as I should and thus don’t get any better.
Mike Fingalsson was also a Navy pilot, and his son, Tom, was a flight instructor and today is an airline pilot. When Kalfi and I were five, Vig cajoled Tom into giving us free flying lessons. We were too small to reach the rudder pedals, so Tom rigged up some wooden extensions so we could turn the plane properly. We took to it right away, and I have been flying ever since. I don’t fly much, because it is an expensive hobby.
Then, years later, Vig by accident converted us to Buddhism. There was a Buddhist meditation retreat center in our town where people mostly from Boston or New York came for a weekend or a week, rented a little cottage, and meditated, did yoga, ate vegetarian food, and learned about Buddhism. The center also offered classes to the local community, and our father signed us up when we were thirteen for a “meditation for youth” class taught by the center’s director, a former monk known as Taft. We were the only two students. Taft was an eccentric and entertaining character and loved to hold court telling stories of his world travels and all the famous people he had met and known. Although he was a monk, he drank Scotch like water and chain-smoked cigars. He had an impressive knowledge of classical music and collection of vinyl albums. He gave us a recording of Rachmaninov piano concertos autographed on the album cover by the pianist on the record, Vladimir Horowitz, who was our favorite pianist. We had a great deal to talk about with Taft, especially because he inspired in us an interest in eastern philosophy and enjoyed the meditation class greatly. Taft was a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend. I still consider myself a Buddhist, but not in a religious sense (I never know what box to check on forms that ask for my religion). I find that Buddhist philosophy and way of thinking and living, however, make complete common sense.
Vig was our anchor in our childhood and early adolescence. He was completely solid, dependable, unflappable and unchangeable. So it was stunning when he suddenly died at a young age. In January of 1983, when he was only fifty-six, he went to the doctor complaining of abdominal pains, was diagnosed with end-stage colon cancer, and died within four months. I’m sure he was in great pain, but he never once complained. We had lost our anchor. Our mother left home the day after the funeral, our grandmother had died the year before, and Mary was living in Minnesota. Kalfi and I were on our own.
In our little town, Vig was the unofficial raja. If anyone needed anything important done, he was the one who was tapped to help. He was the town Moderator for years (I think that may be a uniquely Vermont public office) and was on every important board in the region at some time or other. He was involved with politics behind the scenes, and no Republican in Vermont would have dared run for office without consulting with Vig and getting his endorsement first. He was a socially liberal Republican and would have been horrified with how mean-spirited the party has become today. In his last presidential election, when the Republicans were starting to become captive under Ronald Reagan to religious fundamentalists and the interests of corporations and the mega-wealthy, he voted for Jimmy Carter.
His social status was why our mother’s parties were so big. On Vig’s end, it was a sort of noblesse oblige, and on the guests’ end, attending was a way to show respect. By today’s standards, we lived comfortably but fairly simply. Our house was 2800 square feet, with a small cottage out back for our grandmother and Mary and a modest barn and chicken coop for the animals. We grew most of our own food. We rarely traveled, and had no expensive hobbies other than the big parties and maintaining the farm itself. When Vig died, we discovered his estate was worth $26 million. Nobody had known he had been that wealthy except for Mike Fingalsson. We could have lived fabulously, but that would not have been in Vig’s nature. In his will, he donated nearly all of his estate to charity. I have almost always worked for non-profits and am solidly middle class and no more, so I admit I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have inherited that kind of money. However, I have never questioned or resented Vig’s decision to give his money away. I am very proud of him for the causes he helped, as I am for everything he did, and I love him all the more for it. I think of him and miss him every day.