Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My Father's Father

Siegfried Heckscher (1870-1929)
Lawyer, writer, playwright,
director of Hamburg-America Line,
member of the German Reichstag (Liberal)

In the year 1921 my father showed the first signs of Parkinson's disease; it was the year of the Asian flu and we suspected that it had something to do with it.

         Followed inflation and inability to work. Hully, my mother, turned away from him; she was neither nurse nor sympathiser. In 1923 I realised that someone had to nurse him day & night. I took a course in nursing with the stress on adults; this included massage, and all human activities. After the DM [?] had been regulated again and after Siegfried's pension from the Hamburg-America Line had been started once more, I went full-time into nursing.

          I also took him on desperate trips to quacks all over the country. In the year 1923 we were in Sulzhayn am Harz in the sanatorium of a crazy doctor. From there we went to several quacks.

          While in the mountains he dictated to me his memoirs which I typed carefully and still have. Since being ex-director of the HAPAG meant for Siegfried and members of his family gratis transportation on their ships, I decided to take him to the West Indies. We went on a small steamboat (eight thousand tons?) of the HAPAG called "Galicia" in December 1923—the first of three consecutive trips.

          In Antwerp I bought a large tropical suit for him and treads, buttons, etc., and on the trip (three weeks from Antwerp to Trinidad) I managed to cut and resew the garment so that it fit him fairly neatly.

          We had a luxury cabin with a double bunk so that at night I could help him to urinate and whatever was needed. We went to the elegant dining room first class where we shared a table and where I spoon-fed him; the passengers soon got accustomed to it.

          Captain Hinze was useful and the stewards and other personnel wonderful. As we passed Dover and approached Land's End a new ??? came into the ship. I was feeding Siegfried and looked at my plate with Dover sole and a solitary boiled potato which, as the ship started to respond to the Atlantic swell, began to make poetic figure-eight movements. I warned the potato, declared to be my enemy, and left my seat posthaste and just made it to the Ladies' Toilet where I knelt down and sacrificed to Neptune. I made, it seems, so much noise that passengers alerted the ship's doctor; I asked him to 'end my life.' Cynical laughter. I then went up and washed my face and got a clean handkerchief.

          As I walked down the stairs, precariously clutching the banister, I could see my father at our table; he was not alone.

          A 12-year old Danish-Venezuelan girl spooned Dover sole into his mouth and he seemed to purr with happiness. I then went, after dinner, to the governess of the little Venezuelan sisters under her care and asked her if she liked my father. I was 20 at the time and it seems totally uninhibited because, when she said she loved my father, I immediately asked: "Mรถchten Sie mit ihm schlafen?"("Do you want to sleep with him?") She nodded assent and I spent my first night curled up on a couch outside our cabin. Father and son never discussed the situation but it worked miracles.

          The situation, as I will call it, and another element I had noticed: the beneficial motion of the ship. The fact that as we pitched and rolled, fitting neatly into a wave-rough, my father, as everybody else, used his muscles day & night while trembling, especially as the ship's screw came out of the water which made the whole ship tremble, got what I consider three best three-week massage. We finally parted in Curacao, that strange Dutch colony.

          Once we had passed the drawing bridge of Willemstad with the perplexing view of 17th-century Dutch houses in a tropical setting, the ship went upstream to bunker coal. This was done by Black women who balanced on their heads shallow but large baskets laden to a high point. Dutch colonials in white tropical uniforms used canes to beat the women to greater speed. When I one colonial thought the load wasn't big enough he would use his swagger stick to tip it over, whereupon the weeping woman returned to the coal heap where two women loaded her basket anew and helped lifting it on her head.

          The women sang incessantly in Papiamento. And I was told by a connoisseur that this time they sang their al improviso ballad on that beautiful young man who nursed his ailing father like an angel. I wish I had had the guts to write down the melody and libretto, but I didn't.

          On the next trip we weren't so lucky but I got for my father a monkey and the two became famous friends, and I made a discovery: my father exerted a magic influence not just on women but also on animals.
My father dangling his legs,
posing with mother and siblings
in front of Moltkestrasse 29, Hamburg
          At home he would walk in our miserable backyards. The house to the left was an abortion clinic. To the right Dr. Srender's dental palazzo. On the rear a huge building covered by vine leaves. It was a bowling alley but as even I, as a child, soon discovered, mainly a brothel for taxi drivers. Raucous voices, screaming females and, as background music, the rumbling of the bowling alley. My father would walk with the tottering walk of the Parkinsonian, followed by a chicken we had while on his Shakespearean dome sat a mosquito—the same mosquito day after day. They were inseparables. His only remedy was Lotomil (a foul-smelling sedative). The result that, in contrast to L-Dopa treatment, his mind remained clear to the very end when, dying in my arms, he talked lucidly and beautifully about the meaning Jesus had had in his Life. AMEN.

5 February 1929, WSH death portrait of his father



William S. Heckscher
18th December 1990
(86 when he wrote this.)
Princeton, New Jersey

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