The last time I saw my father was last January, a mild day for Minnesota, mid 20s. I drove out to his house, an hour from the major cities, through several small towns, each perched along a central train line through Minnesota which begins in Chicago and ends somewhere parts west.
In the final town, my father’s hometown, Main Street had only two operational stores: a bakery, which was only open until noon, and a craft shop, only open on Fridays and Saturdays. The rest of the shop fronts were either hung with “for rent” signs or boarded up. Most of the buildings still had false fronts, evidence they were built in the 19th century when this town would have been full of newly arrived immigrants on the train, eager for a peck at the American dream.
I took the slightly longer country road to get from town to his house; this brought me by two lakes, their frozen surfaces covered with snow. The wide, white expanses were also peppered with tiny ice-fishing houses but no cars today; people were at home watching football. Instead the lakes were empty and wind-swept with a pale hint of dull blue in the sky above, promising snow later on.
I pulled the car up outside my father’s house and smelled a wood fire from the indoor stove. By the time I got to the door he had already opened it. I stamped my feet as he said “no bother” and soon I was sitting across the from the wood stove and watching him gather together some papers to show me.
He’s been a missionary my entire life. He just turned the week before from a missions trip to South America, part of his yearly route. Early in the fall he had been to East Africa and last summer was Romania. The papers he was gathering were reports and details he wanted to share about. Over the years as I came by less and less each of these visits seemed to my father to be an opportunity to prove himself; to show that the good word was being spread.
From where I was sitting I could see the small kitchen, sprinkled with crumbs and marked with the days-old rings of used water cups. I got up and grabbed a broom. He told me to sit, but I said I could listen just as well as I worked.
For the next hour, while I cleaned, he talked about his latest trip and about the ideas he had for Bible teaching. Every year there seemed to be a new wrinkle or fresh story. My father came from the generation who either went to Vietnam or found reasons not to and much of his talk was bound up in what he had done, what things he still meant to do. He never asked me any questions, or, if he did, they were mostly designed to give him another avenue to talk about his trophies.
When the kitchen was cleaned I sat down again, but I already knew that there wasn’t much more to say. I ran through a few rounds of weather talk and political musing, and soon I was pulling on my shoes again. He told me to stay, that my bedroom was still just as I left it from when I was here at Christmas. I said no but that I’d be back again around Easter.
Back in my car I let it warm for a few moments but then quickly put it into drive, anxious to be gone. I took the short route back into town and mostly looked at the road as I drove, the passing towns becoming a faint blur on my periphery.
It was that next spring that my father had a stroke and was admitted to the local nursing home. I drove back out to the house, throwing open the windows when I got there to air out the stale air which had collected during the winter. The kitchen was all crumbs and stains again. The chair where I last sat was stacked with more reports and plans for trips that wouldn’t happen now. As I was sweeping the last bits of bread from the counter I noticed a small zip-lock bag with a few ancient cookies inside. Taped to it was a note from my father. He baked them for me the last time but forgotten to give them to me. Their round, brittle edges were just beginning to crack.
Zachery Anderson has lived in Europe and Asia where he worked for a non-profit educational organization. He is married and has two teenage sons.