I am running to my father’s side because he has called me. We are at our friend's house and my father has cut a square hole in the drywall of their renovated garage. He has just dropped his screwdriver in the hole and cannot fetch it with his large hand so I have been summoned. “You can reach right down there and get that screwdriver with your little hand,” my father says. I reach and touch the cold metal tip, then the comfort of the plastic grip. I lift it out carefully and grin, and my father and his friend laugh. I am the finder of the prize. That was more than sixty years ago but I still think about that moment because it was one of the few times that I really knew I helped my father. Another time was when he lost a small washer under the deck of our never-to-be cottage in Canada. I was eight at the time. He asked if I could use my eagle eyes to find that washer...and I did. It made me feel I had special powers. With my little hands, or my eagle eyes, I was a clever daughter who could do anything for her dad.
My parents’ marital troubles began when I was in my teens. There was lots of drinking in the house. My mother and father tried a "French divorce", which involved my father converting the attic of our house in Rochester, New York into a bedroom. We would hear Dad say goodnight and then he’d climb the long, creaky staircase to the fresh pine wood of his newly-created room. My brother, Phil, and I investigated the strangely bare, beautiful place with wonder. I would sometimes find myself up there enjoying the quiet of the room when dad was at work. The French divorce didn't last even a year and my father moved out. He rented a room in the basement of the house of our rich friend, a retired stripper who’d married a member of the mob. She was a buxom, shiny-faced redhead with deep-set eyes and the reddest of lips. She was Dutch, my mother had once said, a tall Dutch woman with massive breasts. I considered her quite exotic, a kind of Mata Hari. My father never became romantically involved with her; she was just a good-hearted soul.
Bernie, my father’s second wife, had worked for many years at Eastman Kodak where she was a chemical engineer. They were colleagues but, two years after my mother divorced my father, he married Bernie. I liked her very much; she was Irish and sharp-tongued. She loved to drink, go to Las Vegas, and have a laugh. She made my dad laugh too. He outlived her; she died of cirrhosis of the liver. I hardly knew his third wife, Edna, whom he married much too soon to fill the void left by Bernie. It’s always a bad idea to do that. This ill-fated third union barely lasted a month. Around that time, I moved out to Denver with some friends. The night before I left, Dad took me to my favorite Chinese restaurant. He was in bad shape. He ordered several scotches, cried and said, “What am I going to do after you're gone”? I remember just wanting to get away from Rochester because both my parents made me sad, even though I loved them.
Dad got along quite well once I was out in Denver. He and my mom were seeing each other occasionally. He also enjoyed helping both my brothers with their businesses. One time, we even had a rendez-vous in Las Vegas for a long weekend. I flew in from Denver and he travelled all the way from Rochester to meet me. He had made reservations for us at Caesar’s Palace. We both felt deeply embarrassed when we were shown to our room because it had mirrors on the ceiling and a single, red velvet, heart-shaped bed, even though he had requested a suite with separate bedrooms.
“She’s my daughter,” my father explained to the concierge.
“Of course she is, Sir,” the small man said with knowing eyes.
My father taught me how to shoot craps and down in the casino I instantly won a hundred dollars. That evening, he took me to a Bernadette Peters show at MGM. He was in his element; he and Bernie had vacationed there several times. I left Vegas a day earlier than him, but he later told me that while he was playing blackjack, he'd performed the Heimlich maneuver on a man, about his age, who choked on an olive while sitting next to him at a blackjack table. The paramedics told Dad he'd saved the man's life. Dad flew out west another time to give me away at my wedding. On the day, July 5th 1986, he sauntered into the waiting room, which was actually the Unitarian Church library, where I was chatting with the minister. He smiled and said I looked sharp as a tack, which I took to be the highest of compliments because when I was growing up, he always used to say that about women who were very attractive and sophisticated looking. In fact, that was just what I was aiming for in the cream-colored, two-piece silk suit I’d had designed for the day. I didn't want to look like some frou-frou bride. That would have been an embarrassment for me-- and for Dad too, I suppose. I wanted to look ready for life, smart and clever, like I could just wear that suit again with some different jewelry and less dressy shoes and my dad might say, what a clever girl I was to get double-duty from my wedding outfit.
My husband and I moved to Switzerland after that and my father got sick. Diabetes. Heart problems. Two strokes. I called him every Sunday night but, after the strokes, he had difficulty talking. I felt somehow to blame, being so far away, and Dad up there in Rochester without a daughter to care for him. My brothers were doing their best to keep an eye on him but I was still consumed with guilt. I used to think that maybe he wouldn’t have gotten so sick had I been there. Instead, all I could do was talk to him on the phone and send him packages for Christmas and his birthday. One time, I sent him a music box that played "Edelweis", some small quartz crystals from the Alps, and postcards from all the places my husband and I had visited. On the phone, he’d tell me about what he remembered of Italy and France during the War, and would ask me about places that now looked nothing like what he described. But I’d say yes, it’s still just that way and he’d be glad, I could tell from his voice. When my husband and I had our first child, we named him Jeremy Charles Ott; Charles was my father's first name. He was usually called Charlie but sometimes my mother, back in better days, had called him Buck and sometimes Chuck or Chas or, teasingly, Junior, which was what his mother had called him.
When the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the eve of my second son’s birthday; he was about to turn four. Dad had died of a heart attack the night before. I attached some significance to the fact that it had happened on Election Day, November 4th, 1996, as if he were the chosen candidate. I flew from Bern to Rochester all alone, weighted down by sorrow about what I could have done better. When I arrived in Rochester, the air was bitter cold, the skies a steely gray. I hadn’t had time to buy mourning clothes so my mother loaned me a warm, black wool suit. My brothers had organized the memorial service at the Paul W. Harris Funeral Home. Although much of the event was a blur, I do remember the American flag folded pristinely by his open coffin, in honor of his military service. After a few perfunctory words from the minister, my brother, Phil, stood up and read out a letter my father had written years ago, directly after the divorce. I had never even known it existed, and was shocked to hear his words coming from my brother's mouth. Dad wrote that he was sorry about the way things had turned out, but the truth was he'd done nothing wrong all along and he didn't feel guilty about anything. My brother could hardly control his anger as he read it because he held my mother responsible for dad's sadness. After all, it had been she who left him.
It was my turn to speak next. I read a poem, carefully avoiding my mother’s eyes. I was so shaken up, I can't recall the title any longer. The verse on Dad’s memorial card was a more appropriate tribute to him. It was an often-used piece about God taking “only the best” and working hands being “laid to rest”. Although I don’t believe in Heaven, I still like the sentiment because, when I think of my father, I have a vision of a Kodak engineer who loved to fix things and worked right next to his men on the factory floor. They respected him for that: he'd be in the shop with "the boys" at all hours of the night. When we were kids, we never minded those late-night calls from Kodak. We were proud of our father because he was vital to the workings of such a powerful company. We used our Brownie and Instamatic cameras with pride.
After the funeral, the guests dwindled away until only my family remained. I stood by the coffin, admiring my father’s still-handsome face and the pictorial memorial-- its photos printed on Kodak photographic paper from Kodak film negatives-- that my other brother, Rex, had put together. Later that week, when the time came for me to return to Switzerland, Rex gave me a miniature brass urn containing some of my father’s ashes. He’d had three made, one for each sibling. Even now, after so many years, I’ll take the little urn in my hands and hold it until the heavy, tarnished brass gets warm. Sometimes I even speak a few kind words to it. It’s like going to a cemetery and having a chat with the gravestone. Dad had died at the age of seventy-four, but was still a big, strong man. I do miss being able to give him a call and talk about anything that came to mind. To me, he was an expert on most everything, which is how it should be, I guess.
Deborah Nash Ott is a retired English teacher from Rochester, New York. She holds an MA Ed from the University of Colorado at Denver, where she also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has lived and taught in both the United States and Switzerland. Over the years, she has participated in several writers’ groups and led workshops of her own. She loves to write and has done so all her life. Her guides have been the authors she has read and taught, and the women writers who have mentored her. Although her work is informed by a love of nature, her travels, and her life abroad, her subjects are often based on her own family. Her articles, short stories and poems have been published in small presses in both the United States and in Switzerland. She now lives and writes in Simsbury, Connecticut.