On Sunday mornings, Dad commandeered the Sunfish on Lake Michigan, while I giggled and huddled in the cockpit. The lake was our church. Sailing was our Sunday service, about as close to God as I ever got.
Although my mother fretted about me out on the big lake before I knew how to swim, I was well protected, if not nearly smothered, by an oversized orange life jacket that was clipped just beneath my nose. The cockpit also protected me from the icy waves, unless Dad came about too quickly and we both got doused. I eagerly awaited that surprising splash because we never knew when or if it would come, but it was part of the morning’s adventure. On calm days, he would let me hold the ropes of the sail, the “sheet,” or steer the tiller under his watchful eye. Dad could assess the wind direction by wetting his finger and holding it near the edge of the sky.
Soon after I grew up and moved away, my father and I began our daily email correspondence, back when I typed on a beige boxy Mac with a slot for a disc.
My 88-year-old father and I have written to each other nearly every day for over 35 years. On one hand, or perhaps both, I can count the number of days we have inadvertently missed. I’d deliberately skip writing to Dad only if we were together visiting. When I was younger, sometimes this daily commitment felt like a chore but I did it anyway, because those emails were something he counted on. Eventually, I counted on them too.
There isn’t always that much to report anymore, as his life, and mine too, have become smaller, narrower. Our email is just the stuff of an ordinary day, yet I’m still interested in hearing about Dad’s occasional trip to Palmer’s for a loaf of bread or driving with Mom to the eye doctor in Westport. I worry about them on the highway, but try not to share those worries in my daily email.
For two decades, the entire family convened for a summer reunion on the Cape. My father taught the grandchildren to sail on the quieter waters of Lewis Bay, so they’d learn to come about or tack without upending the boat. The cousins did tip over a few times, too, as Dad stood wringing his hands on the shore, but everyone survived.
I remember my last trip on the Sunfish, out in the middle of the bay with foggy, weathered summer homes poking through the edges of the horizon. Dad had had both of his knees replaced so it was getting harder for him to get in and out of the boat. Unfortunately, I never learned to be more than a good passenger or first mate, and couldn’t confidently take the tiller or sheet. Despite my father’s patient teaching, I was never able to determine wind direction. But I didn’t particularly like sailing alone. The fun was sailing with Dad.
My father is crooked now, bent over his cane like a question mark. Most days, he doesn’t venture much further than his beloved screened porch. Even when nothing seems the same, my daily correspondence with Dad is a constant. I know that eventually this too will change, and I’m not ready to confront that day. So as a blessing not a chore, I’ll continue to write.
Memories of sailing with my father are a talisman I hold in my palm. In time, our decades of daily writing will become another. So, the vast spiritual waves of Lake Michigan echo—a fading snapshot of me in the cockpit and Dad with his finger to the wind.