Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China.
My Chinese campus is quiet.
Many students have already gone home, and we will teach the last week of classes online. I bike to my office under a clear, blue sky, but my weather app says the air is not-so-great today, and I’m wearing my mask outside. But we are back to masking anyway because of rising virus numbers. When I see a rare, maskless student, I give them the stink eye, silently asking, “Where’s ya mask, ya weirdo?”
Nervousness has turned me a little rude. I’m vaccinated, but I don’t want even a mild case to keep me from flying home on Friday. I pass a little bevy of wagtails, bouncing along the pavement, and they remind me to keep fear at bay and joy in my heart. I smile as I pedal on.
This morning, Michael had a surprise for me on our video chat. He had opened a letter I’d told him to watch for, from my friend, Ruth Anne. She had found and sent a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of my dad living his best life.
It was 1986, and he was a member of the Clinton Lake Sailing Club. He’s wearing a silly straw hat because it was Pirate Day at the Lake. The club was divided up into teams: Pirates and the Spanish Armada. Dad commanded the Spanish fleet.
“He was younger than you are now,” says Michael, and he’s right. Dad was quoted in the article: “It’s a bunch of forty-year-old guys acting like children,” and having “a hell of a good time.”
I remember Dad’s little sailboat on that lake, the Shalom. He always said he was a landlocked sailor, and Clinton Lake gave him a place to finally live out those dreams. I didn’t get the chance to go often to his boat, but I remember when he took his mother sailing, and I wish we’d had the chance to take Dad on our boat in Lake Erie.
I imagine Grandma sitting in the cockpit, her back straight despite the rocking of the boat (my grandmother always had such upright posture). In my imagination, her head is tilted back, her eyes closed, letting the wind and sun tease her face. She’s not smiling, since Grandma rarely smiled, but she clearly enjoyed the ride (she told me so herself when she came home).
Since Michael grew up sailing, Dad let us take out the Shalom, but we only did a few times. Dad had it tied to a mooring ball and we’d row his little dinghy out and climb aboard. Michael knew all about how to motor out of the harbor to the lake and put up the sails while I made sure our two boys were lifejacketed and not falling (or jumping) overboard.
Now, we belong to the same sailing club and occasionally take out one of the Sunfish or Lasers on the weekend for fun. I even took sailing lessons last summer, my plan to get over my fear of sailing so we could have our own adventures. I think it sort of worked.
Out here away from family, I think a lot about how time blows away in the wind. In 1986 I never dreamed that Dad would be gone now, or that I’d look at his likeness on a yellowed page and think he looks like a kid, or that my own twenty-five-year-old self was just a baby or that my own baby would be almost Dad’s age on that yellow page. Or that forty years could pass so quickly, in the blink of an eye or a gust of wind.
And speaking of time passing, it’s nearly lunchtime. Time for me to jump on my bike and pedal back to the canteen. I ride over the loose brick sidewalk that crisscrosses the quad diagonally just like it does at home. The bricks make a pleasant stony rumble, like dominoes shuffling on a table. The wind is fresh as I ride into it, and my mask keeps my face warm in the chill air.
I scare up the same little group of birds, the wagtails, and park my bike at the canteen. Just a few more lunches before I head home to my own table with my own beloved family and think about those present and those gone.
Sail in Beauty; Blow in Peace; Blessed Be.
Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in the News Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small town newspaper. You can see photos of her travels on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at email@example.com or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856.