The food wars started innocently enough.
Dad tagged along with Jim and I and our three-month-old firstborn for a cookout at Robin and Lanie Roberts’ farm house near Loudonville, Ohio.
I glanced across the newly mown backyard at Dad. His hair still dark blond at fifty-seven, was pulled back in his customary ponytail. He let out a “hidey-hi” then a random whistle.
I shot a look at Lanie. I never thought about Dad’s Tourette-like vocal emissions; they were just one of the things that made Dad “Dad.” Tonight I could have done with a little less Dad-ness.
Lanie lifted her brows and shot me an infectious grin. Maybe she had a nut or two hanging from her family tree.
Robin passed Dad a burger in a bun.
“I saw some lamb’s quarter growing along your front walk.” Dad disappeared around the side of the house.
I shot a who-knows look at Jim, scooped up the baby and we all followed Dad.
Sure enough, Dad squatted down and ripped weeds from the Roberts’ front yard and deposited them in his sandwich.
Maybe if we’d just eaten the dang lamb’s quarter that day, Dad never would have made it his mission to guilt us into healthy eating—according to his ever-changing “new light” on the subject. If Dad came late to hippiedom, he blazed the way for the baby boomers’ swerve toward tahini and hummus.
One Sunday night years later, we circled the dining room table in our Indianapolis parsonage. The kids, in grade school, tucked into their favorite meal—pizza and ice cream—a Sunday night staple I instituted to link Sundays and God with happy feelings—much like Mom had marched R.J. and I to mass at St. Michaels in Miami and then to The Golden Nugget for pancakes.
Dad held his arm out for the children to examine. “See all those white spots?”
David peered at Dad’s arm as he chewed a big bite of pepperoni pizza. Bryan reached for a second piece. Annie and Luke looked up from their plates.
“These spots are the poison coming out of my body from all the white flour and sugar I ate all my life.” Dad pushed the salad around his plate, a little smugly, I thought. “And dairy creates mucus.”
“Gross,” Bryan commented.
“Are you hitting the Rainbow Gathering this summer?” Jim said to rescue dinner.
Dad took off on one of his pet topics, the annual Woodstock of free thinkers, minus music and clothing.
Even though I’d already observed that males are born nudists, I was more concerned at the moment about Dad’s ruining dinner than ruining the kids into rainbow people.
The next day when I looked for leftover pizza to feed my offspring for lunch, only one and a half pieces remained on the cookie sheet. If Dad was out in his camper hacking up a loogie, he deserved it.
This was war. I plotted a birthday cheese cake, Dad’s coveted, but contraband desert. Nothing would silence Dad’s food filibusters, but the more food sins I could coax him to commit, the less compelled I’d feel to care whether he approved of me and my parenting.
I started to fix PB & J sandwiches, but discovered Dad had cleaned us out of peanut butter. Maybe he spread it on the pizza to make it healthy. Half way through serving the kids grilled cheese with the black crumbs scraped off—my specialty—Dad walked in eating a bowl of beans.
“Mmm. Never met a bean I didn’t like,” he said.
The kids launched into, “Beans, beans, the magical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot. The more you toot, the better you feel. So, let’s have beans for every meal!”
I scrunched my nose, making note to give him a wide berth the rest of the day. Dad was king of smells. His rotting fruit and vegetables marshalled every fruit fly in a half-mile radius. And garlic was a god—curing everything from warts to cancer. Dad could ward off a herd of vampires.
I handed Dad a Tupperware of potato salad I was trying to get rid of.
Dad shuddered and told me potatoes were poison.
I shrugged. Last visit meat had been Satan. Meat made a comeback this year—particularly pepperoni, I’d noticed.
Dad retrieved his stash of black bananas from the freezer and fired up the Ferrari of juicers he’d just bought me—that would reside in the garage until the next time he visited. He rallied the kids for single-ingredient banana “ice cream,” his salvo in our war.
“This is good,” Annie said. Luke looked at her skeptically, then took a bite from his bowl. He took another bite. Bryan and David watched their siblings down Grandpa’s frozen treat and reached for their own servings.
Dad offered me a bowl.
I looked up from the cheesecake batter and shook my head. “I never met a banana I liked.” I looked at Dad’s water glass. “Your water looks dirty.”
“It’s got cayenne pepper in it—”
“Eew!”Just when I thought Dad couldn’t surprise me—
Dad launched into the health benefits of cayenne and I went to my happy place in my head.
I would never drink cayenne water—or take silver pills or chlorine drops, or any of Dad’s weirdo health fads. At thirty-seven I’d long ago given up trying to please Dad.
Noticing my disinterest, Dad shook his head. “Everywhere I go people view me as a great teacher. Why can’t you?”
Guilt and regret ricocheted around my ribs like a wrecking ball.
Dad wanted to live to 300. He wanted us to live to 300.
I wanted to die younger and get to the good stuff—heaven. If pizza and ice cream got me there a few years earlier—and happier—so be it. I wanted Dad to experience an ET connection with Jesus and enroll in heaven with the rest of the family.
Our philosophies diverged in Robert Frost’s yellow wood, both of us believing ours was the road less traveled by, the one that would make all the difference.
Dad spent the afternoon teaching Annie how to safely cut carrots and juicing the peck of carrots he’d scavenged from the dumpster behind Kroger.
After dinner we sang Happy Birthday to Dad and cut the cheesecake.
He muttered between bites about how many weeks it would take him to detox after his visit.
I looked around the table at my Captain Crunch and Fruit Loop loving kids. Someday they’d marry healthy eaters and reform. But Dad would die of liver cancer in his eighties and not get to enjoy the behavior he may have birthed in them—and me. Now that I have no one to rebel against, I eat healthy.
At fifty-seven, I’ve gained a little wisdom. I wish I’d realized that Dad and I were both seeking an answer to our question—Am I enough?—from the most important person in our lives. When my kids were teens Dad once told me I was a good mother. But I honestly can’t say if I ever gave Dad a single yes to his question.
If I could have one more conversation with Dad, I’d tell him he was the most important person in my life.
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