Mary Lucille Hays teaches writing at UIUC and at Zhejiang University in Haining, China.
Here on my Chinese campus the roses are such a riot of blooms that when I ride my bike to my office, the heat lifts the perfume from the flowers and scents the air.
But I am thinking of friends and neighbors at home, especially the brothers who farm our land, Jim and Sean. I’ve written about them before, about how good natured they are when I come home and find one brother in the grain truck waiting on the road at the edge of the field, the other in the combine, planting or harvesting. I hope they don’t mind that I interrupt their workday. I park the car and run to the edge of the yard and flag the combine down for a ride.
The combine will stop at the edge of the field, and I clamber up into the high seat of the glassed-in cockpit. I love sitting there as the monstrous machine slowly crawls back and forth across the field, making stubble where the dried corn or beans stood, gathering in the golden harvest of grain. The brothers are each patient with my questions and my silly talk. It’s like a carnival ride for me, especially at harvest time, when we stop at the edge of the field and gilded kernels rain into the waiting truck.
But I got some news the other day that was very hard to hear so far from home. We lost Jim, our good neighbor and friend. It is a great sadness for our family and community. Jim was such a generous, kind-hearted soul. He valued hard work and treasured the land. He seemed a little shy, but he was widely loved. He never asked if we needed help when we were snowed in, our long farm lane three feet deep after a blizzard. We would just wake in the morning, and begin to move around in the kitchen, feeding the dogs, fixing our coffee, thinking about how to shovel out and get to work. But then we’d hear the grinding sound—Jim or Sean in the tractor plowing us out.
How many times did I think to run out and invite Jim in for coffee and a bite of breakfast? But mostly, by the time I got out of my robe and into my clothes, he was already gone, probably to plow another neighbor out. I did catch him a few times and enjoyed a friendly chat. He liked my whole wheat rolls. But now I wish I’d hurried faster more often to catch him for a visit and a cup of coffee.
Another time, about a mile from home late at night in a blizzard, my car slipped into a ditch. I walked the rest of the way and went to bed. In the peaceful morning after the storm, the sun blinding against the snow, we heard a knock at our door.
It was Jim. “Do you want to go get your car?” he asked. Jim was watchful over his friends and neighbors, and he knew it was my car and showed up without being called, just to help. Did I ever tell him how much I appreciate him? I don’t think so, but I hope he knew. I wish to be like Jim—friendly and caring, a steward of the land and of the community. But mostly I wish I could brew another pot of coffee and have one more visit with a cherished friend.
Today I’ll bike out to the student farm on the north side of our campus and take a look at the pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, and peppers the students planted and think of Jim, who plowed the land and planted beans and corn on the other side of the world. Let us harvest friendship and caring and stewardship in his honor.
Gather Beauty; Harvest 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.