Just a year ago February my mom’s closest friend, Kathy Ochiltree, passed away two months shy of her 99th birthday. It was a difficult loss for those of us who loved Kathy, for Kathy’s wisdom, non-judgmental character, caring nature and delightful sense of humor are something we all miss.
Mom was a volunteer throughout my childhood and into my collage years with the Huntington Hospital Auxiliary. For years mom was on the auxiliary’s board and her specialty was interviewing new volunteers and assigning them to available volunteer positions. Mom was the best judge of character that I have ever known. After spending a few minutes with somebody she met mom had this uncanny ability to tell a great deal about him or her. Upon meeting my friends mom would eventually tell me which ones impressed her and which she found troubling. Often she would hold her counsel but eventually it would come out. Darn if she wasn’t always right. The friends that turned out to be troublesome were the ones that set off red flags when she met them.
My Mom’s Friendship with Kathy
In 1959, Kathy Ochiltree and her family moved to Huntington and lived just a few streets away from us. Kathy’s best childhood friend, Betty Hawes, lived in town so the Ochiltrees decided to live in Huntington when husband Scott’s work relocated the family to the New York Metropolitan Area. Soon after moving to Huntington Kathy decided to volunteer at the hospital where she met my mom and the two instantly became friends. Kathy and Scott had three sons. I went to junior high and high school with their youngest, Cam. Steve and Craig were older and I didn’t get to know them well. My mom also became friends with Betty, Kathy’s friend. Betty’s son John and I attended school together starting in the same Kindergarten class all the way through high school. John and I have remained in touch through our mutual closeness with Kathy.
Scott Ochiltree soon became ill and Kathy had to find a paying job to help support the family. She ended up becoming the Executive Secretary to the President of our town’s chamber of commerce. By that point mom and Kathy were so close that they didn’t need the shared volunteering experience to maintain their friendship. Mom and Kathy always enjoyed spending time together. Kathy was ten years older than my mom and mom always respected her opinion. Both of my parents were avid moviegoers, something that I learned from them and I remain so to this day. Kathy was also a movie enthusiast and the three of them often went to see movies together.
Through the years I got to know Kathy as she became part of our family. As a child I referred to her as “Aunt Kathy.” As I was an only child I often was included in many social activities with my parents and their friends so I got to know most of my parents’ friends well. In fact, when I was young I often found it easier to socialize with adults than with kids my own age. I have so many delightful memories growing up with my parents and time spent with Kathy. As Scott Ochiltree was quite ill I didn’t get to know him as well as he wasn’t able to partake in many of the diners out and movie nights that Kathy and my folks shared. Scott was a good man, a good husband and good father. That much I remember.
Our family had a beagle named Peanuts. He was great fun, terrified of thunderstorms and he loved to chew on the laundry room door and its doorframe. When we would leave Peanuts alone at home we would confine him to the laundry room so that he would not wreck havoc on the entire house. He didn’t like being kept in the laundry room but confinement was necessary because Peanuts became mischievous when given the run of the house if he was left to his own devices for more than an hour or two. The neighbors would often hear Peanuts howl when we left him; beagles are great howlers so don’t choose one for a family pet if you are looking for a quiet dog. My dad was always frustrated when we would return home and find wood splinters all over the floor as Peanuts vented his frustrations with being cooped up by trying to chew his way out of his perceived jail. Dad jokingly said that Peanuts was a “longhaired termite.” The Ochiltrees had a female beagle and my folks and Kathy and Scott decided to breed them the next time she went into heat. When the fateful day arrived we took Peanuts over to the Ochiltrees’ house to let the two of them do the deed. Well, nothing happened. Peanuts never rose to the occasion. My folks, Kathy and Scott shared many laughs over Peanuts’s lacking in the paramour skills department for years.
Mom passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 51 in February 1977 while I was completing my MBA at The University of Chicago. We found out that mom had cancer less than two months earlier. Mom’s passing at such a young age was a huge loss and my dad died of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, just six years later at age 58. I still miss my parents dearly and think of them every day.
The timing of mom’s death especially upset Kathy. The evening before she died Mom called Kathy around 8 p.m. and asked Kathy to come to see her at the hospital as there was something that she wanted to tell Kathy. They spoke on the phone for just a short time as it was taxing for mom but Kathy promised to come see mom first thing in the morning. Mom passed away five or six hours later. Kathy berated her self for not going to see mom immediately. But how could she have known that the next morning would be too late? Kathy and I both wondered what mom was going to share with her.
My Friendship with Kathy
Mom and Kathy had a cherished friendship that spanned eighteen years. I remained close to Kathy until she died thirty-seven years later. It saddens me that so many people only interact with their own generation. Most of the elderly do not live with their families and many grandchildren rarely see their grandparents. One of the many valuable lessons I learned from my mom was the joy of befriending all sorts of people from many different backgrounds and different age groups. I remained close with many of my grandparents’ friends and my parents’ friends until they died. I have always enjoyed friendships with people considerably older than me, from my own generation and also younger than me. The elderly have a lifetime’s worth of experience and knowledge. They can share wisdom gained through life experiences that we have not lived through. Younger people have enthusiasm and their eagerness to learn and grow can spur us older folks to get out of ruts that have become too comfortable. I have found few things in life more rewarding than mentoring young people.
Whenever I returned to my hometown to visit I always stopped by to see Kathy and of course we would talk by phone. Sometimes we would speak often. Sometimes I allowed too much time to pass, which I now sadly regret. My trips home grew infrequent as family moved away from Metro New York or passed away. Fortunately, during the last years of Kathy’s life I was in touch regularly, often calling at least once a week. To say she was extraordinary would be an understatement. Nothing could perk me up more than calling Kathy on my mobile during my drive home from work and making her laugh, as Kathy’s laugh was infectious. She was sharper and better informed on politics, the arts, current events and the latest trends than most people half her age. Kathy had wisdom and a zest for life beyond belief.
I came out of the closet twenty-five years ago. Many gay people when they come out to their parents often are told, “Don’t tell your grandparents as they won’t be able to handle it.” Not long after coming out in 1990 I told Kathy that I was gay and her love was unconditional. By that point my parents and grandparents were all dead. Kathy’s acceptance and love meant the world to me. I always appreciated her emotional support, felt her love and her guidance was so valuable. The number of people who knew me back when I was a child and knew my parents is sadly small in number so I would often turn to Kathy when I needed a parental figure for guidance. Years ago John Hawes mentioned to me that whenever he would go over to the Ochiltree’s home he knew that no matter what he shared the Ochiltrees wouldn’t judge him. That kind safe space and support is rare indeed. The people that we can turn to for guidance and support without being judged are amongst life’s greatest treasures.
Kathy lived in her house, by herself until just a few months before she died. Her son, Cam, and daughter-in-law, Helene lived just a mile or so away and they kept a close eye on her. More loving and caring children no parent could want. Still, Kathy was self-reliant and wanted to live as independently as possible. She abhorred being a bother to anybody. Cam and Helene made it possible for Kathy to live on her own for as long as possible.
I cherish so many of our phone calls. Of course, finding time where Kathy was available to talk was often not easy because she was always so busy. She played cards, went to movies and theatre, attended church (where she sang in the choir) and was in “Newsday,” the newspaper covering Long Island, in an article about an exercise group for senior citizen women called “Gentle Bends” that was published in January 2013 (just over a year before she died). Kathy was proud that she was the oldest member by ten years of the exercise group.
Outliving Her Car
One day when Kathy was in her mid-90s she mentioned that her car, which was from the 1970s, was no longer reliable. She chuckled as she told me, “Well, it was a contest to see which one of us would go first, me or my car. It looks like I am going to outlive the car.” She mentioned possibly leasing a new car. She ended up driving Cam and Helene’s old Jeep Cherokee. Visualizing Kathy getting in an out of a Cherokee brought a huge smile to my face. My legs are short and I bitch like crazy whenever I have to get in or out of an SUV. Good for Kathy to think nothing of doing so!
I often shared stories about Kathy with friends because she was so unique and was so important to me. When I shared the story about Kathy and her car some reacted in horror, their mouths would drop open and they would remark that she shouldn’t be driving at her age. They just didn’t know Kathy. She kept up with current events, politics and the arts. She knew as much about the world around her as most people half her age. Kathy was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton when Hillary ran for President in 2008. Kathy would have been the first person to stop driving if she felt she was no longer capable of doing so. Nobody would need to suggest that Kathy Ochiltree stop driving.
During one of our phone conversations a year or two later I asked Kathy how her car was doing. She replied that she had stopped driving a few months earlier. I asked what made her decide to stop. Kathy responded, “I was in the parking lot of King Kullen (the local supermarket) one day and I was about to pull out. I said to myself, ‘Kathy, you have never had a car accident. If another driver backs into your car nobody is going to believe that it wasn’t your fault.’ So, I decided it was time to stop driving.” That was the Kathy I love so much.
I know giving up driving was a difficult decision for Kathy, as she hated being a burden on anybody else. She just didn’t understand that others loved to do things for her because anytime anybody got to spend with Kathy was a high point of their day, if not their entire week. She had good neighbors who looked in on her as well. Long Island and the rest of the New York Metro Area have been hit with some treacherous weather during the past five years including Hurricane Sandy and a number of record-breaking blizzards. Kathy lost electricity on several occasions. She was also snowed in a few times. Fortunately, if Cam or Helene were unable to make it over, Kathy’s neighbors would shovel her out and make sure she had what she needed and take her in if need be until Cam and Helene could overcome nature’s fury.
I loved reminiscing about memories of my parents with Kathy, as she was the only close friend who was still around with whom I could do that. I am so happy that Nathaniel, my son, was able to have a long phone conversation with Kathy a few years ago. He got to ask Kathy questions about his grandparents that nobody else could answer. My dad passed away when Nathaniel was very young so he doesn’t remember Dad and mom died a year before Nathaniel was born. Kathy was one of less than a handful of people he ever spoke with who filled him in on his grandparents.
The Only Time I Saw My Mom Speechless Involved Kathy
I remember a humorous conversation with Kathy where I reminded her of a chat that she, my mom and I had in our backyard during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of collage back in 1971. I had a close relationship with my parents and I was a good kid who gave them few challenges. I really didn’t have much to hide from my parents so I was honest with them (other than the fact that I was gay, which I was still failing to admit even to myself). During my freshman year of college I, like all but one or two college-attending baby boomers I knew, began smoking marijuana. I did so responsibly, when I had no tests the next day and all of my schoolwork was completed. It never got in the way of my responsibilities. I had told my mom. She wasn’t thrilled but she wasn’t shocked and she didn’t overreact. Mom once told me when I wondered how I would keep myself from becoming too strict as a parent, “You can’t expect your children to adopt the exact same standards as your generation. The best you can hope for is that they adhere to the best standards that are considered acceptable by their generation.” Her valuable insights proved to be so helpful as I raised Nathaniel. Mom was a wise woman indeed.
As none of you, with perhaps the exception of one or two people reading this, knew my mom, I need to share a few things about mom. She had a great sense of humor, always had a twinkle in her eyes and enjoyed a good laugh. Mom always held a strong opinion and wasn’t the slightest bit inhibited about sharing said opinion. In fact, there were usually only two ways to do most things, her way and the wrong way. I have to be honest and admit that I am a great deal like my mom. Just like mom, nobody has ever described me as being soft-spoken or non-committal. During one conversation with Kathy during her last few months alive I mentioned that I bet she saw a lot of my mom in me. She laughed her delightful chuckle and responded that she saw a great deal of both my parents in me. Kathy’s warmth and support traveled from Huntington to Dallas right over the phone and I had a huge smile on my face upon hearing her kind words. I was proud and became teary-eyed. My parents had been excellent role models and I grew up with unconditional love, something that far too many kids never have had. Although both of my parents were taken from me far too early I had been fortunate, very fortunate.
So back to our discussion about that fateful day in our backyard during the summer of 1971, I reminisced with Kathy about the three of us talking. She added that we must have been sitting in the white Adirondacks chairs, probably having some of my mom’s great iced tea that she made all summer long, using oranges instead of lemons. I verbally nodded. I reminded Kathy that my mom sarcastically brought up the fact that I had been smoking marijuana in college. Mom stated, “Well, I would never smoke marijuana! Would you Kathy?” Mom knew darn well what Kathy’s answer would be, or at least she thought that she did. Kathy answered without missing a beat, “Oh, I smoked pot with Cam. It was fun.” Kathy and I both started howling at the memory. I told her, “That was the one and only time in my entire life that I ever saw Natica Selig speechless!” We both were crying we were laughing so hard. Don’t worry; I cleared this with Cam before including this fond memory.
Music and Movies
One day I caught Kathy just a few minutes before she was being picked up to attend a concert with a friend. I asked her what type of music she was going to hear. Kathy mentioned that it was going to be a harp and flute concert and added that she grew up in a musical home and that she liked all kinds of music. Then she floored me, “I even enjoy listening to rap music.” Can you imagine somebody in his or her mid-nineties listening to and enjoying rap? Kathy was wise beyond description as she added, “Some of it is really good, not all of it, but some of it I really like. If you want to understand the younger generation you need to meet them on their own turf.” WOW! Of course, she was right but how many of us would listen to rap to understand and connect with young people?
Kathy never lost her love of going to the movies. Just before moving from her home into the nursing home she had seen the “Dallas Buyers Club” starring Matthew McConaughey. She asked if I had seen it and when I told her I had not but it was on my list of movies to see she told me I must see it. The movie was about an AIDS patient who smuggled in unapproved drugs to help save lives as nothing then available was stopping AIDS patients from dying. My husband, Rodolfo, and I live just a mile or two from where the actual story took place. The real life version of one of the main doctor characters in the movie called in a prescription to my pharmacy for me when he was on call for my doctor not long ago. The receptionist character in the movie was actually three people in real life, one of whom I have known for over twenty years. Yet it was Kathy who pushed me to go see the movie. Rodolfo and I went to see it the following weekend and loved it, of course.
During the last months of her life Kathy was in a great deal of pain from sciatica and hated having to give up her home and live in a nursing care facility. She developed several infections that landed her in the hospital and Kathy eventually decided that it was time to stop fighting and that she only wanted care to keep her comfortable. Kathy had put a great deal of thought into her end of life, didn’t fear death and when it was time to let go, it was time. During one conversation while Kathy was in the nursing care facility she told me that she had lived a long, happy life. Kathy stated that she was more fortunate than most people. She added, “Now, I am going to die at some point. I don’t want anybody getting all upset and acting as if my passing was a tragedy.” I assured her that nobody could possibly think that her end of life would be a tragedy the way somebody much younger having his or her life cut short would be. I added, however, that many people had a great deal of love for her and that she would be deeply missed, “Your passing won’t be a tragedy, but it will still be as huge a loss for those of us who love you as it would be if it were a tragedy.” In some ways she was a surrogate mom. Kathy hadn’t looked at the impact that her death would have on others and myself in the way I had described and it gave her pause to think.
In one of our last phone conversations about ten days before Kathy passed away, Kathy told me how much our friendship meant to her, how much she loved both of my parents and how much she loved me. I kept conversations short at that point so as not to tax her energy. However, I did get to tell Kathy how she had made a huge impact on my life, that I loved her and that my cherished memories of her would always be held close to my heart.
Kathy Ochiltree passed away peacefully on February 26, 2014. Cam and Helene had just been with her and went home to grab dinner. Her minister was with her when she died. He had placed a set of ear buds in her ears and played her favorite song as she peacefully passed away.
For those of you reading this that have elderly loved ones living, cherish them while you still have them. Take the opportunity to record some of their stories for future generations. I had tried to get Kathy to let me record a conversation with her that I could share with her family and friends as a lasting memory but before we found the time to do so it became too taxing for her. I am sorry that we never followed through. Make the time to capture oral histories from elderly loved ones. Take out a smartphone and turn on the audio record app or video camera and ask questions. Record their precious memories of family history (include stories told to them by older generations) as well as your loved one’s view of what our country and the world were like as they grew up. What historical events occurred during their lifetimes and what reaction did their family and friends have to those events? Capture stories about loved one’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters that will be lost to future generations once they are no longer around. Those memories are priceless and so is having a record of them sharing their stories.
On April 24th Kathy Ochiltree would have been 100 years old. She almost made it. But Kathy lead a full life filled with a phenomenal collection of family, friends and many, many people who adored and loved her. Kathy’s passing was not a tragedy. It was and remains a huge loss. I wanted to write about Kathy soon after she died but I just couldn’t. The milestone of Kathy’s 100th birthday feels like the appropriate time to pay homage to her memory. Kathy, I love you and I miss you. Thank you for being such a good friend to my parents and to me. I am most fortunate because I have had you in my life since I was six years old. Mom only had you for eighteen years. Thank you for being so supportive. Thank you for being so accepting. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being you. Like my parents I think of you every day. I miss you, I love you and I always will!
‘Gentle Bends’ Women’s Exercise Group
Newsday article on the exercise group Kathy enjoyed attending (Kathy is the furthest to the right in the story’s photo),