Here’s to you, Phil

Double-Stuf-Oreos-2My uncle, Phil Ottley, turns eighty today.  I haven’t seen him since my mom, his sister, celebrated her eightieth birthday, two years ago, at a big shindig on Long Island. Phil and his wife Glenna threw it down and came.  When I say “threw it down,” I mean they traveled from afar:  they have homes in Idaho and Florida, and when they are not in residence either place, they are traveling in between in their motor home, with an energetic yellow lab to keep them on their toes.  Phil would not have missed Mom’s eightieth celebration for all the salt in the sea. Family is everything to him – he, Glenna and their kids are close-knit and funny, they share a love of sarcasm, racquet sports and skiing, dogs, cabins, boats, and the outdoors.  They are huggers and belly-laughers; in their presence, wine, wisecracks and witticims flow generously.  They are deeply loyal to our “Ottley” clan.

Phil has a special place in my heart.  I learned a lot about family from him, mostly that the people you love the best are the ones you can tease the most mercilessly, as long as you are willing to get as good as you give.  Phil is a top-of-the-class tease.  I’ve always been hyper-sensitive; my husband John despairs that you just cannot rib me—I take everything so personally.  If I can be messed with it all, it’s thanks in part to Phil.

I spent a couple of vacations in my early teens with Phil, Glenna and their kids, my cousins Lalyn, Heidi and Gray.  I’m a few years older than Lalyn, their eldest, so ostensibly I was along as a mother’s helper, at least that’s how I remember it.  I certainly don’t recall being called on to do much beyond setting a table or maybe helping pack a picnic basket.  Perhaps I just distracted the kids so Glenna and Phil could catch their breath in those intense years when it feels like your three children are the cast of an entire three ring circus.  My first vacation with Phil & Co. was a two-week trip to Nantucket, back when his family still lived in Greenwich, and he was a dissatisfied executive at John Deere, itching for a wider horizon.  We stayed out past Wauwinet at a little group of unfussy, weathered shingle cottages sprinkled in a semi-circle around a central lawn.  I think I remember a barbecue, and maybe a volleyball court, definitely there were sandy paths worn in the grass from cottage to cottage. We drove out to Great Point in their Chevvy Blazer for nighttime bonfire picnics, the huge tires digging deep grooves into the sand. Our trunk bucked and swayed like a drunken donkey as we drove in the ruts across the beach, and whoever got to ride in  the “way back” laughed and laughed, tossed with the coolers and beach chairs like picnic salad.   We’d meet up with other four-wheeling families driving their Jeeps and GMC Jimmys out to the point–SUVs were for off-roading back then, not Costco trips.  The parents would drink beer and wine; the kids roasted marshmallows and played endless games of Go Fish and War with worn decks of cards dulled by sand and dotted with little glops of dried ketchup.   On that trip, I was also Phil’s partner for crack-of-dawn bluefishing expeditions.  It was hard to interest Glenna or the kids in the early morning fishing runs while I was there to be Phil’s companion/victim, although I’m sure they all had many tours out to the point with him at other times.  He’d implore and cajole, saying they’d be missing the best part of the day, the sunrise, the cold, the thrill of casting your line out over the waves before the rest of the world was even cutting the coffee cake.  But no go. Glenna was a great sport who went along with his whims ninety percent of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.  So he’d turn to me and say, “Hol, we’re goin’ fishin’ tomorrow morning.  Be ready to rise and shine at four-thirty.”  Those who know me will laugh at the image of me weilding a fishing pole anywhere ever, let alone at four-thirty a.m., but I was flattered to be noticed.  Life at home was fraught.  My parent’s marriage was strained, my older brother was agitated and acting out.  My little brother was seven years younger, funny and original, but only six, so he stood a bit to the side in our family drama.  The nanny whisked him away in her Datsun hatchback at the slightest whiff of conflict.  They spent a lot of time in that little car, zipping off to the park or the library.  When I was at home, I tried to fly below the radar, spending whole days reading or playing the little electric tabletop organ in my room. Or I’d go off to friends’ houses, where perhaps the parents also fought, or drank too much, or yelled at their kids, but since they weren’t my parents, it felt like a haven.  So when my Uncle Phil insisted I bundle up and head out in the truck before daybreak to the point, helping him schlep the rods, the cooler and the bait box divided into sections for the different lures, I was pretty happy.  I have never asked him or Glenna why they brought me along on that trip, or my mom for that matter.  But I’ve always felt it was a great kindness to a niece who felt lost in her own crumbling family, and that, on some level, Phil recognized this.  I wasn’t an obvious choice to tag along with my sportier cousins: The only thing quick about me was my mind.  I was bookish and plump, not active or outdoorsy, the kind of sensitive young teen who occasionally got homesick at sleepovers. Yet I didn’t feel homesick staying with them.

The next summer, when I was fourteen, I joined the Ottleys for another trip—my National Lampoon vacation correlate—as we traveled from Denver to Los Angeles by way of British Columbia and the Pac Northwest in a motor home.  Phil was ready to shuck the corporate world.  He’d fought the good fight, but he just wasn’t a clock-punching, office job kind of guy, and suburban Connecticut life on him was an ill-fitting suit and tie.  He and Glenna decided to reinvent themselves, to head out West in search of a lifestyle that was expansive, fun, adventurous—like them.  They didn’t know exactly where they should move, just that they wanted to find a place that was beautiful and growing, with good skiing and great people, somewhere Phil could start a new career as a developer and general contractor.  Maybe Vail?  Or Jackson Hole?  Possibly Sun Valley or somewhere in Washington State.  Who knew?  What better way to find out than to load your wife, three kids, and teenage niece into a jumbo size Grumman motor home and literally drive off into the sunset, in search of home.

What a time we had.  In southern Wyoming, we parked in strip mall parking lots.  My bed was a pull-down cot that during the day stowed away above the driver’s seat, so by necessity, I was last to bed and first to rise.  One night, in Laramie, I think, Glenna shook me gently, urgently awake.  “Get up, Holly!  We need to leave.” My five-year old cousin, Gray, had developed a torrential nosebleed that could not be stanched.  We sped off to the ER in our jammies, my cousins Lalyn and Heidi still asleep in their beds.

In Jackson, Wyoming, we were briefly joined by our grandmother, who arrived in her patent leather Ferragamo pumps with little bows on them, clutching a boxy, matching handbag containing her cigarettes and gold lighter.  Her one concession to being “out West” was a London Fog trench coat for the cool evenings.  When we visited Yellowstone Park, she stood outside the Grunt smoking, her bold pink lipstick branding the filters, while we walked the fifty or so yards from the parking lot to view Old Faithful. Her adventure-loving son seemed a mystery to her. Or perhaps he was just like his father, my grandfather, who died when Phil was only eleven or twelve; maybe Phil’s boundless energy and hijinks made her miss her first husband.  But give Grammie credit:  she came along for the ride, sitting at the four-seater table in the motor home doing needlepoint as the Sawtooth mountain range flashed distantly outside the window.

When we got to Glacier National Park, Phil set up the tent for me and my oldest cousin, Lalyn, so we could spend a night in the fresh air instead of cooped up in the Grumman, aka the “Grunt.” Its lack of pickup was so severe that every mountain range we crossed was an arduous crawl of uncertainty, like an exhausted marathoner, only the whole race course is Heartbreak Hill.  In our tent, we had a copy of the bestseller, “Night of the Grizzlies,” along with a couple of flashlights in case we needed to venture out to pee.  We curled up to read: The book was the true story of a rogue killer grizzly who had, in separate incidents, killed two young women staying at the very campground where our tent was pitched.  The first chapter graphically relayed tales of the big boy methodically slashing and clawing his way through dumpsters, cabins, tents, even a car door, to get to his victims. He was a bear with an axe to grind.  I was terrified, convinced that every rustle and snap outside our tent all night long was this insatiable creature, ready to slice us to ribbons if we so much as hiccupped.  I barely slept a wink.  At breakfast, Phil asked us, with a twinkle in his eye:  “How was your night, girls?  Hear any bears?”

In Banff, we stayed at a remote campground embedded in an exquisite fir forest.  On the compound, there was a little general store for emergency purchases like eggs or coffee, milk or matches, and we went in to pick up a few groceries. I seem to remember we were always running out of toilet paper (also, always emptying the Grunt’s septic tank.)  I can’t remember if I was alone or we all went in together, but I do recall standing in line waiting to pay behind a family of spent-looking hikers buying candy bars for dinner, no ubiquitous protein bars in 1974.   A TV burbled in the background.  When we got to the counter and paid in US dollars, the cashier—in my memory he was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a wool hat, but this was August, so my mind must be conflating him with SNL’s Bob and Doug McKenzie– cocked his head towards the black and white TV, its picture flickering and fuzzy below rabbit ear antennae.  “Your president is resigning,” he said.  There was Nixon on the screen, seated at a desk flanked by flags, reading a speech from a sheaf of papers in his hands.

Phil liked to tease me on that trip about my habit of sneak eating.  I was an emotional eater, still am, and I used to steal into the Grunt in search of Oreos when everyone was outside preoccupied with cooking or tent-pitching.  I thought I was being devilishly stealthy, in that magical-thinking way of the eating-disordered: if no one saw me actually chewing and swallowing, then it never really happened, right?    But Phil wasn’t going to let it go: “Rustle, rustle, like a little squirrel looking for nuts,” he’d say, chortling, when I emerged from a trip to the pantry.  It felt simultaneously awful and liberating, to be called out for my shame-filled fixes, always with a chuckle and a hug. It normalized something that I felt was so defective about me, brought it into the light. I was mortified, and oddly, relieved.  At home, it felt like such issues either stayed in shadow or were met with nearly operatic dispair.

Which isn’t to say Phil didn’t have his own issues or struggles, that his family was all sweetness and light. They squabbled like any other brood, and sometimes the teasing was just plain infuriating.  Phil went through bouts of not eating enough and drinking too much.  My last lengthy stay with them was when I was twenty, during my “year off” from college.  After my sophomore year, I was burned-out, a bit lost in my sense of purpose and identity.  I spent the fall selling “dinnah-wayah” at Fortunoff’s department store in Syosset, Long Island, eventually saving enough money to buy my first car, a red Honda civic sedan with plush seats and a dashboard cassette player that was my pride and joy.  In January, I drove cross country, intending to visit a friend I met in summerstock theater that summer who lived in San Francisco and take acting classes with her.  “On the way,” I stopped to visit the Ottleys at their home in Ketchum, and stayed through June.  I lived with them for my first month there, helping my cousin Heidi with her French homework, or on my knees organizing Gray’s voluminous Lego collection so we could vacuum his room. In their lovely loft guest bedroom, I spent two weeks reading obsessively: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “East of Eden,” “Duncton Wood,” sweeping stories I would never encounter in a Princeton lit class—a tonic for my academic malaise.  I’d sit up with Phil after Glenna and the kids had gone to bed while he nursed a bottle of Taylor white wine, and we talked about my grandmother, his childhood with my mom, skiing, the history of Ketchum, and the Sun Valley ski resort gossip of the day.  He celebrated my arrival in Sun Valley by escorting me, a nervous and novice skier, to the top of Mt. Baldy and insisting that I’d be just fine—there was, after all, no way but down.  I’ll never forget the name of the trail I fell on, ”yard sale” style, skis and poles littered on the slope above and below me: Blue Grouse.  It was a blue cruiser that nonetheless felt like the Matterhorn to me.   I watched, dejected, as my cousins, aunt and uncle, all beautiful, fluid skiers, carved lovely arcs away from me down the mountain. After a long, bargaining conversation with God, I picked my way carefully to the bottom, where Phil et al were waiting for me, leaning casually on their poles, more at home on these slopes than I was anywhere on earth, at that time. Phil smiled cheerfully and said “At long last. Ready to go again?”   Shortly thereafter, he and Glenna took a trip back east for a week or so, visiting my cousin Lalyn at boarding school as well as some East Coast friends and relatives. I stayed at the house, cooking dinner for Heidi and Gray, driving them in the family SUV to and from school, ski practice, friends’ houses, feeding the dog, then back to my lair in the loft to read some more.  After I decided to stay longer in Ketchum, I moved out to my own place, but I’d still stop over for dinner every week, just to check in.  It was home away from home, for sure.

So happy birthday, Phil, and many happy returns. This post has been my toast to you. Thanks for being my fun, encouraging, needling, humor-filled, supportive, and only occasionally really irritating uncle, for teaching me how to tie on a bluefish lure, not to fight the fall line, how to take a joke.  I have forgotten the former, but the latter two skills have served me well.  Next time I see you, the Oreos are on me.  Love you.

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Two years ago at my mom’s 80th birthday: Uncle Phil & Aunt Glenna, with daughters Lalyn (the blonde with the attitude) and Heidi and their husbands, although not in that order!

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