I stood in the galley slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my lunch at St. Hugh’s.
Dad walked the length of the cabin and started up the companionway.
I scrunched my nose. “Peew! What’s that smell?” Dad was full of smells, like a mid-Eastern bazar—pungent and not always pleasant.
Dad stopped on the steps, turned toward me, and opened his mouth.
A whole clove of garlic sat on his tongue.
He gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m fighting a cold.”
I shook my head and cinched my sandwich in waxed paper. I didn’t see Dad as weird. He was just Dad.
When I plodded home from St. Hugh’s, chock full of Catholicism and math facts, Dad sat on the dock, surrounded by my brother and the three Canfield kids. He did ells like I’d first seen him do on Muscle Beach the year I was five and we toured the West in a Volkswagen van. He lifted his body off the dock with his hands, ankles together and extended in front forming a right angle.
Dad’s affection for gymnastics and water resurfaced at Brookside Pool in Ashland, Ohio, when I was a newlywed. He shifted his levitated legs from an ell into a straddle. An impressive feat for a guy in his fifties, but I could have lived without the glimpse of the loins from which I sprung.
But today, Dad was adequately covered in trunks leftover from his lifeguarding days, as he coached the kids in ells and headstands.
We all held our breaths as he powered up from a headstand into a handstand.
His hands moved from a tripod position to either side of his head. His arms trembled with exertion as his legs arced slightly to maintain his balance. With a grunt he extended his arms the last couple of inches.
As he held the pose, I watched sweat trail from his forehead into his crew cut. My shoulders pushed back a bit in pride beneath the sunbaked sleeves of my uniform. Dad could do anything. He was invincible.
Except he wasn’t.
A few short months later, Mom packed us up in her blue Rambler and drove away for good.
She didn’t just take Dad’s wife and kids. She took his dream of circumnavigating the world on the boat he’d built.
After we left, Dad gave up electricity, running water, and Pier 1 to hunker down on the Annie Lee, anchored in the lee of the Dinner Key islands. Within a few years, he sold the boat.
Not that I blame Mom. My own Dad-wounds were stacked in the aft cabin as high as the spare lumber.
Without Mom tethering him to mainstream, Dad grew his hair out.
Women on the street clutched their chests and hyperventilated, mistaking him for Willie Nelson.
When I was sixteen, my AAU swim team nemesis would be less impressed.
Celeste, two years younger and two seconds faster than I was, rinsed her goggles in the pool and repositioned them on her face. “Who’s that old hippie?”
I looked at the opposite end of the pool.
There stood Dad in ratty parachute pants and Willie Nelson hair.
Wordless, I sunk under the water.
Later, I stood in the back yard picking the rat’s nest out of his baby-fine hair, lecturing him as if he were the teen about product and the need to learn to take care of your hair if you’re going to wear it long.
I leaned away from Dad’s BO and sucked in fresh air.
What he really needed was soap. Showers and baths—like all water—Dad loved, but no amount of snide comments would convince him to face chemicals.
I breathed through my mouth, plotting to spirit his laundry into the washer with an extra shot of detergent and a cup of vinegar—as many cycles as it took to part the stink from his shirts.
I would have given my berth on the homecoming court for a vanilla dad.
But Dad erected a tee-pee of metal poles in the back yard to sleep under—no canvas, just the poles.
Of course, I asked why.
To absorb the power of the universe as he slept, Dad said.
My Catholic sensibilities rolled their eyes.
Indoors, Mom slept with her new, vanilla husband.
My stepfather drank two Big Gulp-sized vodka and ginger ales before dinner and lay in his recliner with a German shepherd and two cats in his lap while he dozed in front of the TV. He bellowed when he spoke. In his spare time, he posed for pictures in The New Smyrna Beach Observer as the exalted ruler of the Elks or for his latest role at The Little Theatre. But Ralph was a separate entity. Dad was part of me.
Dad’s cocktail of intelligence and insecurity flowed in my blood. His penchant for conquering over-sized, complex jobs like building a forty-foot sailboat would transmogrify into my writing novels. I clung to his penny-pinching as if I’d fished it from the gene pool on purpose.
Throughout my life, whenever Dad came to visit, first hitchhiking, then by bicycle, and finally in a camper on the back of a pick-up, he brought a collection of decomposing fruit and a cloud of fruit flies reminiscent of Peanuts’ Pigpen. But the year I turned twenty, he brought something else. His nineteen-year-old Swedish girlfriend.
I climbed my high horse of indignation.
But Dad had mourned Mom’s moving on for seven years. Didn’t he get to do the same?
The relationship ended—probably when the girl’s olfactory system cried uncle—and she returned to Sweden.
Dad still spoke of her in his eighties. For all his foibles, shallow affection wasn’t one of them.
Nor was it one of Mom’s, as it turned out.
My daughter, Annie, was in her teens when she observed Mom and Dad—closing in on eighty—chatting on my dining room chairs. She glanced up at me. “Grandma still loves Grandpa.”
My mind flooded with their stream of post-divorce phone calls and letters, and in-person meetings at their children’s events.
I pictured sixty-something Mom marching into my house—stuffed full with my four young children—trailed by my stepfather. She sailed straight to the bedroom where Dad lay recovering from hernia surgery. “Show me your incision.”
Had she claimed the right as a nurse or as an ex-wife?
When Dad lay dying of liver cancer on hospice at my house, Mom—in the early stages of Alzheimer’s—came every day to care for him.
That Mom had been married to another man for a lifetime didn’t matter. Annie was right. Mom always loved Dad.
Dad hadn’t been able to power up their marriage like the headstand he muscled into a handstand on the dock that day in 1970. But it means everything to me that my parents’ love—against all odds—proved invincible.