Alta Della Foley died at age 90 this spring, leaving a few lines in her journal and a mystery for her daughter to ponder.
Captured in a photograph at age 16 with a marcel wave and a wistful smile, Alta never got over the defining moment of her life. It happened one day when she was 4 years old — the day her father hugged her goodbye and walked out the door.
It was a loss that would reverberate throughout her entire life. The little girl grew into a teen who loved riding horses bareback across the prairie and a woman who relished traveling to Europe, yet she never permanently escaped her grief.
In honor of this Father’s Day her daughter Donna sits on the red leather couch in the living room of the South Hill home they shared, and ponders her grandfather’s secret. As she thumbs through family photos, she gazes at his handsome face. How could this calm, sturdy bricklayer, all 6-feet-4-inches of him, simply have disappeared from her mother’s life?
She pages through the journal.
“When my father suddenly left — unannounced — coldly ignoring all [family] members — it was forever. The jolt of no connection to him left a wound in me which has never healed in 89 years,” Alta Foley wrote.
Her father’s name was Otto Valentino Heyerdahl. When Otto left his wife and children in Aberdeen, S.D., in 1918, divorce was shameful and rare, a father’s absence permanent. Shared custody and visitation arrangements lay decades away.
Today many more couples divorce and the majority of fathers find ways to remain connected to their children. Yet, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, nearly 10 million American children have not seen their dad in the past year.
For sons and daughters both, this represents a profound loss.
As a daughter in a family overflowing with women, I know best the father-daughter bond.
My own mother plans a 100th birthday celebration for her father this summer, a man she’s lived no more than 60 miles away from for nearly her entire life. She still calls him “Daddy.” I remain close to my father, who I especially turn to in moments of crisis and triumph, and whose integrity I admire. My daughters call their dad from college now and display there the sense of confidence he helped them build.
This Father’s Day I’m grateful for each of these men, and the assurance that it’s only the miles between us, not abandonment, that leads us to miss them.
Donna Foley heard her mother lament her father’s mysterious absence to the end of her days. She combs through her mother’s journal and her memories of their conversations for clues.
Alta described her tall father as cultured and refined, an emotionally restrained Norwegian. But his 5-foot-2-inch Irish wife lashed out with fists and a quick temper — apparently with good reason.
The fighting reached a peak the year Alta was 4 years old. Her father had an affair. He took $500 his wife had saved, bet it on a racehorse and lost it all. Their differences mounted into brick walls.
And so Heyerdahl walked out. He appeared again only two or three times in his daughter’s life — once for a brief meeting while she was in college and later after she was married and living in Spokane. She planned a family vacation with a stop in Sacramento, where he was living then. These fleeting conversations only skimmed the surface.
At 89, Alta wrote, “The fruitless search for an answer was never found and the tight lips of the offender never opened. He was someone I never knew, but the hurt remained. The void between us was real and could not be repaired.”
Donna Foley yearns to tell her mother’s story this Father’s Day. She describes her mother, a woman whose elegant beauty shines out of old photographs, as scarred. Donna believes she carried a lifelong sense of worthlessness that began in the grief and guilt of that day when she was 4.
She hopes her mother’s story will fall on the ears of today’s fathers.
“I don’t know if men are wise enough to be aware how powerful they are,” she says.
But she knows the effect of Otto Heyerdahl’s absence on his daughter’s life: “It was everlasting.”
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