Photo by 5demayo

Photo by 5demayo

Mom and Ralph, my stepfather of over 20 years, bustled into my Indianapolis house after a two-day car trip from Florida.

“Where’s your father?” Mom strode through the kitchen.

I pointed her toward the bedroom where Dad had camped out since his hernia surgery.

Mom donned her R.N.—or maybe it was her ex-wife—hat and marched off to inspect his incision and God knew what else.

Ralph stared thunder clouds at the back of Mom’s head.

Dad had arrived unannounced a few days earlier with a medical agenda, as Jim and I packed for a three-day conference. Mom and Ralph had long been slated as designated child minders for our getaway.

Jim and I kissed the kids and skedaddled before the seniors’ soap opera sucked us in.

When we returned, Dad had graduated to the family room and I walked into a My Two Dads sitcom, minus the comedy.

Ralph, who viewed watching TV without a remote as exercise, hauled his 270-pound bahonkus off the couch and turned on Home Improvement.

Dad, maybe 125 pounds in ratty sweats and no shirt, limped over and powered off the TV.

Ralph swore, blotted his forehead with the hankie in his shirt pocket, and hefted himself across the room a second time.

Tim Allen blinked to life, arms folded, facing the wood fence in his back yard, and yacked to his camera-shy neighbor, Wilson Wilson.

Dad muttered something about the “idiot box” and hobbled down the hall.

The next day Mom and Ralph fielded our thanks, said goodbyes, and—like Wilson Wilson—disappeared.

Luke, Bryan, David, Annie in their natural state

Luke, Bryan, David, Annie in their natural state

Our three boys circled through the kitchen, living room, and family room in a car-less, shirtless version of the Indianapolis 500. Four-year-old Annie, also missing a shirt, streaked after them. I caught her on the next pass. “Girls wear shirts,” I said like I had a dozen times before.

She laughed and wiggled as I carted her past Dad to the mountain of clean laundry on the family room floor.

Dad didn’t look up from the Indianapolis News he’d propped against a cereal box just beyond his reach on the breakfast bar—a naturopathic remedy for farsightedness. Never a fan of clothing, Dad thankfully kept his two cents to himself while I pulled a top over Annie’s head.

Annie traipsed out to the back yard where Bryan and Luke scaled the tree above their treehouse. David swung upside down from his knees on the cross bar of the swing set. While Annie picked up the hula hoop, I grabbed a towel from the laundry pile and folded it.

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I plotted “poisoning” dad with white flour pasta, but—due to his recent surgery—decided to call a cease fire in our never-ending food war. I’d fix chili, a dish Dad approved. I speculated on how many weeks Dad would dawdle over his recovery and whether I could wash his clothes enough times to get the stink out.

At the time I didn’t realize Dad wended his way across the country to me when he needed to come “home” for repairs and recuperation. I didn’t know that wherever I was spelled home for Dad. One day he’d come home to me to die.

A week later, Dad, mostly recovered but still banking on the pity vote, talked the family into attending a survivalist confab at the Indiana State Fair Grounds.

The boys lined up, mouths dropped open, watching a guy start a fire with flint.

I perused the people milling past the MREs, trying to predict whether they were all as paranoid as my father. Years later Dad would help a friend build a bunker in the side of Pike’s Peak in preparation for Y2K. But they moved in too early. Dad wore out his welcome and got kicked out before the “disaster.”

My eyes tracked a man in a polo and plaid Bermudas. His wife wore jeans and a tank top. Could they be camouflaging crazy? I watched to see if he’d shoot furtive glances over his shoulder, looking for Big Brother like I pictured Dad doing. But the guy focused on posters of freeze-dried everything. His wife quizzed the booth lady about the preservation process, sans any sign of mental illness.

Maybe we really needed the Survivalist Fair!

Maybe we really needed the Survivalist Fair!

I glanced at Dad as he sharpened a hunting knife on a carbonized silicon slab. His straw hat jiggled as he worked. I skimmed down his lumberjack shirt, striped cotton pajama pants, and boots and shook my head. He was the only aging flower child in the exhibit barn.

The boys darted toward a booth of blow guns and I sprinted after them. Boys and darts, never a good combination. Maybe now wasn’t the time to tell them their father pastored a pacifist church.

Annie stood beside Dad, watching an industrial blender liquefy vegetables into green slime.

The boys wandered into the wind-up flashlight stall.

I sighed, mired in martyrdom at wasting an afternoon with a bunch of wackos, and trailed my finger across a powdered milk tin. I could almost taste the clumpy, cream-colored ice water of my childhood. I shuddered. Next came the powdered eggs, another culinary curse from the boat years better not revisited. I turned my nose up at the five-pound cans of peanut butter, beets, baked beans, and banana pudding. Seriously? What was the point of living longer than other people if you had to eat that crap? Somebody needed to find a way to preserve salad, steak, strawberries and ice cream.

Dad hobbled—not from the surgery, but from doctoring his own broken ankle years earlier—toward a table full of water purification pellets and a stack of canned water.

I looked at my watch and tapped my foot.

Dad in our Indianapolis house

Dad in our Indianapolis house

Dad believed death was to be avoided at all costs. He dedicated his life to healthy eating, neo-gnosticism—my theologian husband labeled Dad’s flavor of religion—and pulling for American anarchy.

I liked life, but death meant enrollment in a happy eternity with Jesus—not something worth all Dad’s extreme measures to avoid.

Decades later I excavate the junk heaps that memorialize the intersections of my life with Dad’s. I uncover the free tickets to the survivalist fair, a rock star juicer, and a host of his health harangues.

Dad and I would never agree.

Dad wanted respect. I gave him a stoic face of tolerance.

I wanted words of affirmation. Dad gave me things that mattered to him.

But today I see Dad’s wearisome runs at winning me over to his wingnut ideas with wiser eyes. I see a sea of standing stones winding back through my life, markers of Dad’s passionate concern for me and my family.

I see—finally—love.