Inside a dresser drawer, or a desk, a big filing cabinet, stashed in a cardboard box in a garage — these are all places where artifacts of a life can be stored and found. 

This wasn’t the case when my father died suddenly in a propane explosion and fire at his home outside of Syracuse, New York when he was 63, about a decade ago.

It was February, I was 28, living in Manhattan at the time, and after speaking with the sheriff about ice falling from the roof cracking a liquid propane pipe causing the explosion and fire, I was overcome with emptiness and grief. 

My dad had been estranged for most of the time I knew him. After my parents’ divorce he was in and out of rehab programs for alcoholism, struggling to make ends meet, and it seemed all he ever spoke about on the phone were loud roommates, his lack of transportation, and his on again off again sales jobs. In one of his last voicemails I preserved he said that “it wasn’t an easy journey.” Although he had finally gained some stability during the last six months of his life.

I was his next of kin, the one who had stuck around the longest. I wasn’t close to his family and didn’t know his circle. Even if I didn’t have all the facts to write an obituary, it seemed like I had known him best. 

I wrote he was a great conversationalist. He could carry a tune. I wrote that he had been through his own struggles but had never lost his positive spirit. I quoted his voicemail, “Life is about fun if you don’t hurt others, but then you have to at some point try to help others, and then your life is worth it.” 

A few days later I flew to Central New York to visit the site of the fire at his home in Phoenix, N.Y. Smoke was still in the air, the scorched beams, smut and debris, the front of his home revealing the inner burnt guts of the structure turned to char. It was too frightening to endure for more than a glance. I went to see if there was anything inside his car. I was lucky to find his sports jacket, old Giants hat, a thermos, a clipboard with his handwriting on it, a pocket knife and other keepsakes that anyone else would think belonged in the trash. 

I went to the funeral home to pick up his urn, and I gathered print copies of the newspaper with his obituary and then flew back to the city with my bundle that represented all that was left of my dad.

During the first months after his death, a strange guilt formed for not writing enough in his obituary. I had collected his yearbook from one of his ex-roommates, and I thought about requesting his health records, military records, and reaching out to his high school for his transcripts to learn more about the classes he took. My search for artifacts stalled as motherhood swooped in. 

Watching my son and daughter start their lives kept me moving forward through my grief and anytime my son arched his eyebrow, just like my father, I would tell myself, you need to find out more about Dad’s life.

If it wasn’t for moving to Houston, I may never have sought the answers. Five years after my father’s death, life shifted from Central Park strolls through the seasons to scorching heat year-round. Grief hit me hard. I knew I was far from where my father died. I felt a strong displacement, the distance from my roots hit me and I wanted to suddenly dig up the answers about my father’s life.

The story of the pocketknife

On the patio in the blazing sun, I opened the duffle bag that held my dad’s keepsakes that I had found in his car. I flicked the compartments of my father’s pocketknife and admired the maroon handle.

The pocketknife immediately reminded me of the one he gave me when I was 12, my parents’ divorce, and my father’s alcoholism and depression. He said he bought it in high school. I wasn’t sure I wanted the pocketknife. I wasn’t sure I wanted to still care about him. 

Even though he timed me on the neighborhood track and encouraged me when I joined the middle school cross-country team, his drinking meant he missed most of my races. 

While on the phone with him, I had written on a notecard in my tween handwriting notes from what he said to me during our conversation: 

“1965 pocket knife bought by dad.”

“Turn on the gas stove.”

“No one gets out of here alive.” 

I wrote that if he died, he wanted to live until I got to high school. While he was talking about turning on the gas stove and ending it all for himself, I wasn’t sure I could keep him alive, even if I ran well.

Something told me I didn’t want to lose my dad then; I also didn’t know what I’d gain by sticking around, but I didn’t know who else could care. I decided to keep the pocketknife. I’d be his family. I hoped that one day he would see that his life was worth it.

I opened his yearbook and a question weighed on my mind: Where did he feel happiness in his life? I want to go back to the time when he bought the original pocket knife.  

  • A pocketknife is one of the remaining keepsakes Houston writer Isobella Jade has of her estranged father, Curtis Staub
  • Old picture of a father holding his daughter
  • Yearbook photo of Isobella Jade's estranged father
  • Notecard written by Houston writer Isobella Jade when she was a child

I emailed the records department of his high school in New York for his transcripts. I had a vague memory from childhood of my father pointing out a friend in his yearbook. He said something about living with her family. I couldn’t be sure which classmate it was. From the transcripts I’d learn the name and address of the family, and the last name matched the last name of a girl in the yearbook, Julie. 

I went with it. I searched her name in Google, and then the word married, trying to find out her married last name, then I searched for a baby birth announcement, maybe I could contact her son. I found his work email, and winged it and wrote to him, Would your mother be willing to talk with me about my dad who lived with her family?

“Hi, it’s Curt’s daughter.” I lean against the counter in my southern kitchen.  

I hear Julie’s easy-going voice on the other end of the phone. 

She’s happy to fill in the blanks although tells me, “I don’t want to say anything that will offend you.” I assure her she couldn’t. 

“I know he had his ups and downs,” I say to break the ice. She tells me about my dad helping out on the family’s vegetable farm 12 miles from Lake Ontario. 

Julie reminisces with me about Dad’s quirks, the music he liked, the flannel shirts he wore, his red hair, and when he was “a pain in the ass.” 

She said he would make statements about the purpose of life. “Curt had the freedom to be who he wanted. He was no trouble.” She mentioned that he was a chorus officer and made the champion track team, and the camaraderie he found among the close-knit student athletes.

It’s probably why he had encouraged me to become a runner as a kid, something that provided a positive direction for my life. Julie tells me he was celebrated at a recent school reunion. There had been a ceremony for classmates who had passed away and when she went to get his balloon another friend had beat her to it. Dad had been unforgettable in a place I didn’t know had held one of the best times of his life. Others had remembered him and cared, people I didn’t know but who were his group of friends.

I knew then if I had held a funeral for my father the room might not have been empty like I had feared.

On the phone, I didn’t have the nerve to ask about what caused him to become a foster kid. I would find out through his medical records that he had been involved in a store robbery and had been spending time with the wrong crowd, and he was raised in an alcoholic home before he arrived. 

‘A gift of answers’

When I requested my father’s medical records from the VA Medical Center in Syracuse, I only expected a few pages of basic health stats. Instead, I received over 117 pages, a periodical, a year by year account of my father’s health, mental health and where he was living, his work, his thoughts are on the page transcribed. The records spanned two decades; a gift of answers about his life.

On these pages, I learned that his father had left his life when he was a toddler. I can’t help but wonder how this abandonment impacted him, and if he filled up the loss of their relationship with drinking.

Also, on Page 20, I learn at age 2, 5 and 16, he lived in three different foster homes.

On page 90, when I was 13 years old, I read that he had been depressed during the last few months and attributed this to losing basic services in his home and to his recent suicidal ideation. 

On page 57, I was 23, it’s five years before he died, I read that he does acknowledge that he had suicidal ideation and that in these moments of despair about his situation he has felt that he would be better off dead than struggling to remedy his situation. Then it reads that he cares too much for his family, his two daughters and mother to do anything like that to them.  

In one of his last voicemails he is sober, years away from page 90, he is living in his new home, and he says, “I drank more than some and less than others but definitely too much for too long.” 

I wish we had more time to discuss the difficult times and over the years I’ve become more and more honored to be his daughter despite his imperfection and I carry on his mantra for compassion as a common sense. When I listen to his voicemails and hear him say, Things will get better for all of us… I’m confident of that, it’s always crushing because in his voice he doesn’t know his time on earth will end soon. I want to believe, even though “it wasn’t an easy journey,” my dad had made peace with himself and was looking forward to better days ahead.

When I look at the pocketknife now I see the years of his life unwind and how he kept going forward when he could have given up, he faced his struggles straight on, and he still believed tomorrow could be better.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or depression, you can call the Crisis of Intervention Houston Hotline at 832-416-1177.

Isobella Jade is an essayist and writer living in Houston, find her on Twitter @IsobellaJade or email her at

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Isobella Jade is an essayist and writer living in Houston, find her on Twitter @IsobellaJade or email her at