Life Without Father

Dayton James's daughters were the center of his life, and he was the strong and certain linchpin of theirs. Although he and their mother divorced when the girls were small, James saw Darcy and Daytona every week. He took them bowling or to dinner; he let them select movies. Sometimes he took them to the cinema he managed, where they sat in the dark all day watching films and eating popcorn.

The girls adored their father, but they took him for granted, too. "You don't cherish the time you have," says Daytona Ferry. She is sitting with her sister at a table in her pretty Arvada house. "We were at that age when we wanted to be with Dad, but then we had friends we wanted to go to..."

When she was nineteen, Darcy Priola lived with her father for almost a year. She remembers small things -- that he worked late hours and ate a bland diet because he was watching his cholesterol. That she'd lie in bed at night and listen to him laugh at the antics of the gang on Cheers.

At one point, Darcy says, "I gave him a cat that he didn't want."

"It destroyed his couch," Daytona chimes in, laughing.

"Yes." Darcy is laughing, too.

"And it would attack his legs when he was in his suit when he'd leave for work because it was mad that he was leaving."

"But he would pet it. I would see him pet it."

"Yeah, he loved that cat..."

The sisters were also amused by James's bright green wall. Their father was color-blind, Darcy explains, and when she lived with him she'd begged him to repaint the wall because it embarrassed her when friends came over. He'd refused. He said it relaxed him, remembers Daytona. "But I don't think he knew the extent of the brightness of it," adds Darcy.

Daytona was 25 when James was killed; Darcy was 22. Throughout their entire lives he had been both hugely important and invisible in the way that parents are to children. Now, seven years after his death, they struggle with an acute and constant sense of loss. They wish they'd paid more attention during every precious moment they had with their father. They try to fathom just who he was, poring over photographs, searching their memories, putting together bits and pieces they've heard to create a map of his life. They mourn the fact that their own children -- Daytona's two: seven-year-old Sarah, whom James was able to see and hold during a visit to California, and five-year-old Heather; Darcy's son, Dylan James, who's three -- will never know their grandfather.

"Darcy and I went crazy in our minds because we don't know the specifics about anything," says Daytona. "We know a little about this, a little about that. Dad was very private, even with us."

The sisters do know that their father grew up in West Virginia and was brutally abused by his own father. A family friend told them that their father's dog had once tried to protect him from a beating, and their grandfather had shot the dog in front of his son. Dayton James left home at the age of thirteen. He never completed his education -- a fact that troubled him to the end of his life. The day before James died, Darcy had told him over the phone that as a senior citizen, he could take university classes for free. "He was really excited about that," says Daytona.

James lived for some time in Detroit. He was a merchant marine. He returned to Charleston, West Virginia, and taught ballroom dancing for the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, where he was once honored as "the most outstanding and progressive teacher of the month."

For the last several decades of his life, he had managed movie houses, beginning his career as a doorman at Denver's old Paramount Theatre in the early '60s. There was some financial uncertainty after Mann Theatres laid him off in '91, and he filled in at various jobs until he found work at the Basemar Cinema Savers in Boulder. Co-workers there described him as immensely conscientious.

James suffered from depression and saw a psychiatrist to the end of his life, trying to deal with his troubled background. Although he rarely spoke of his religion and never proselytized, James was a devoted Catholic. A friend said he'd once told her that he wasn't skilled at relationships, so he'd devoted his life to his daughters and to doing what good he could in the world. He volunteered for social services, supervising visits between children and divorced parents; he visited a shut-in old man; he allowed neighboring children to set up a basketball court in his yard.