I looked up from the French toast remains and dirty dishes on the breakfast bar to watch Dad supervise the kids choosing polished rocks he’d brought them as gifts. Their four heads ducked around the dwindling pile. The soft smile on Dad’s face made me hope he’d connect with his grandkids more than he’d done with me.
“The boys got the prettiest ones,” five-year-old Annie harrumphed.
“Did not!” David said, all nine-year-old righteous indignation.
“Here, take one of mine.” Bryan, at 12, was losing interest in his grandfather’s customary gift rocks.
Annie grabbed for a clear stone that magnified the carpet pile beneath it.
“No, not that one!” Bryan pried it out of her fingers and replaced it with a smooth black stone and a white sandstone.
Seven-year-old Luke chewed on the end of his thumb, then reached for a sparkly quartz, the prettiest rock in his pile. “Here.” He pushed the rock into Annie’s pile.
Annie’s eyes grew. Her lips curved upward. She looked at Luke. “You’re the best brother ever.”
I smiled. In her five years, she’d smacked her brothers, stolen toys, and pulled off a litany of last-born shenanigans, but they never retaliated. Chivalry must be born in boys.
I glanced out the sliding glass at my neighbor Jan’s house. She thought Jim kept me barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. What Jan didn’t know was that I’d been a lonely, only child for almost seven years, had wished at times that Mom’s career had been me and not bound to a bunch of sick people I didn’t know.
My gaze rested on my father. In a way I had been Dad’s career. He’d spent hours with me every day while building and living aboard the Annie Lee. Now he spent hours with my children. Dad had graduated from sailboating, to hitchhiking, to bicycling, to a camper on the back of a pick-up. Once or twice a year his Jed Clampett “RV” rattled into our drive in Indianapolis where it would sit for six weeks. Ben Franklin said, “Fish and guests stink in three days.” Given Dad’s aversion to soap and his fondness for rotting food, it never took that long.
He stood and his knees creaked like they had all my life. He faced me across the counter. “You need to tell your organic farmer friend to play classical music for his vegetables. They will grow ten times their normal size. None of this Rock-N-Roll. It has to be good music.”
I nodded, my expression devoid of Dad’s enthusiasm. On my internal compass, Dad’s passions flopped between wacky and boring, never nailing True North where we could navigate conversation.
“I heard it on the short wave.”
Where else? According to Dad, the one reliable source of truth—uncensored by Big Brother—was short wave radio.
Yes, I’d share Dad’s gem with organic farmer Roger Sharritt, but it would be delivered with an eye roll. I wondered if Dad and I would ever excavate any common ground.
I tossed in a load of laundry and came back to find the kids turned upside down against the family room wall attempting headstands.
“Ow! That hurts,” Luke said, balancing seven-year-old knees on his elbows, head pressed to the carpet to complete a tripod. I rubbed the top of my head, remembering my own headstands. Dad had sworn all that blood flow to the brain upped our IQs. And maybe it did.
The kids collapsed in heaps on the carpet and tried again as Dad regaled me with a tale about a backyard swimming pool in Alabama. People who touched the water were healed and threw away their crutches.
“Umm hmm,” I said, my skepticism tamping down Dad’s fervor.
After Dad gave me the long version, he marshalled the kids outside the sliding glass doors. Dad’s 11 X 17 notebook he used to chart his stocks lay open in front of them on the cement slab. Dad’s lips moved but I couldn’t hear what he said.
Nine-year-old David ran his finger down a column of the Indianapolis Star, the stock report, no doubt. He spoke.
Dad pointed a finger at a spot on the graph and Bryan, 12, made a mark in the notebook.
Annie, the youngest at five, swung on the swing set beside them.
Luke’s eyes flitted back and forth between Dad’s face and the notebook. He’d be the only kid in first grade who’d heard of compound interest.
Since Jim and my lifetime financial goal was to break even, I credit Dad with my kids’ good money habits in adulthood. It had to have been my tightwad father who turned David into a Dave Ramsey devotee—just shy of melting all his credit cards on a cookie sheet in the oven. And Dad’s passion for investing found new expression in Luke’s micro loans to jumpstart small businesses in under-developed countries.
Over lunch, Dad held court on time travel and reincarnation as though they really happened. I glanced at the kids to make sure they weren’t sponging up Dad’s pet beliefs. But they were gnawing on white grapefruit casing—Dad had told them it was the healthiest part—screwing up their faces, and making retching noises. Miming my reactions to Dad’s ideas. I’d long ago rebelled into conservatism, chose Christianity—and closed my mind, according to Dad.
In the afternoon I stood in the garage as Dad ran the kids through proper hand signals for bicycling on the road. After weeks of teaching the boys how to repair their bikes, everyone’s bicycle had achieved road readiness. The kids were ready to take their maiden bicycle voyage to the library with Grandpa.
“Always ride against traffic,” Dad instructed, contrary to the DMV’s rule. “You can’t trust the cars behind you to avoid hitting you.” This was the first inkling of Dad’s paranoia that later evolved into his belief that the militia moved through the South, relieving citizens of their guns and ammo. But today’s proclamation, I agreed with. One thing I could count on, Dad would keep my kids safe.
A little safer than Luke preferred, it turned out. Luke, as comfortable on a bike as he was on his feet, hopped off a curb and earned a piece of Grandpa’s mind. After the ride, Luke hid behind my bed until my father came looking for him to make amends.
David, the family moralist, jabbered about Grandpa’s stopping to pick apples from a tree in someone’s yard. And in the space of a sigh, I was David’s age, having similar compunctions about my father’s petty thievery.
But Dad had given the kids an adventure—like all the ones he’d given me.
That night, Dad told us Nikola Tesla’s electric car gathered electricity from the air. Lee Iacoca and Shell Oil were suppressing the invention, evidently. The kids peppered him with questions, while I shot Jim a yeah-right look.
After supper, Dad talked the kids into helping him fill old milk jugs with spring water from the Flowing Well a half-mile down 116th Street. Dad popped the hood and extracted his collection of old milk jugs from among the tools and wadded up plastic grocery bags stuffed around the engine, then passed out the jugs.
Annie crawled into the bunk over the truck cab. David sat on a stack of magazines. Bryan stood beside the stove where Dad’s fruit supply decomposed. Luke climbed into the last square foot of floor space. “Hey, Grandpa’s camper smells just like the dumpster behind Kroger where we stopped today for Grandpa to look for free food!”
Bryan pinched his nose. “Don’t remind me.”
But none of the kids climbed out. They knew wherever they went with Grandpa would be interesting. Tonight’s escapade involved a “breakdown” in the middle of 116th Street. But when they got to the well, Dad told them he always turned off the truck at red lights to save gas.
After umpteen trips to the bathroom and one last drink of water, the kids caved to bed time.
Dad sat in the living room making sure Jim and I listened to the entire cassette tape on the Alabama healing pool. We had it coming after all the times we’d Jesused him. Jim and I bucked up and took our medicine. Then, Dad retired to his camper.
When the children were still a figment of my future, Dad had called me artificial. While the word didn’t damage me as it would have when I was a child, it did nudge me into counseling. Dad might never transform into the father I needed, I was told. What could I settle for?
I decided I could settle for a superficial relationship with Dad. I hoped he’d visit and take an interest in my kids.
And that’s what I got. Plus a long string of mini-adventures that gave my children a taste of my childhood.
As an adult, Annie said, “I always knew Grandpa loved us.”
She echoed my heart. Despite the dysfunction, I’d always known Dad loved me. And when I push aside the dings and damage we dished each other, I discover that I value the adventures Dad wove into me, and later, into my kids. Adventure was a love language we all understood.