If I'm feeling extra nostalgic lately, it's because this has been kind of a crazy year by any standards. March 3rd, 2016 was my dad's 68th birthday. We spent it in the hospital with a morphine drip, saying goodbye, and on March 5th, he died. While in a lot of ways this was expected after a decade-long battle with cancer, there's really only so much you can do to prepare for the heartbreaking finality of losing a parent. There's even less you can do to prepare for managing all of the aftermath that comes along with it.
It was hard to talk about dad's impending death in front of him, so we spoke in code. Picking out a cemetery plot became "buying real estate." The hand-made coffin my brother constructed became somewhat affectionately known as "the box." The ancient Jeep that my dad had patiently restored and that we used as a farm truck for years became "the ride" after the decision was made to use it in place of a hearse.
After the funeral, while everyone else tried to go back to life as normal, I headed to California for the first time in almost a decade to meet with lawyers and begin the long process of settling my dad's estate. In addition to forcing me to return to a place I've been very successful at avoiding, it took me to one of the last places my dad had visited - a somewhat unlikely truck stop / winery / fruit stand / gas station / RV park called Casa de Fruta. There's a lot of good things about the place. They have a 24-hour restaurant with pretty good food and you can buy a bunch of different flavors of wine there. It's also a short drive from there to the lawyer's office, but costs half as much as staying anywhere else in the area.
Dad collected* tractors for most of his life. They were a constant part of my childhood, and most of my memories (and pictures) with dad involve being on a tractor somewhere on the ranch. So it was more than a little overwhelming to wander down the little paths at Casa de Fruta with their endless lines of decaying antique equipment lining both sides, and know that dad had been there, surely stopping and assessing and talking on and on about each one. This was a place that dad could not have helped but feel a connection to.
I felt strangely connected too, despite the fact that I spent much of my life trying not to absorb all of the tractor knowledge I'm sure he wanted to impart to me. In some ways, I felt more attachment to this place than to the actual ranch where I grew up. In thinking about place and how it shapes us, I guess that makes sense.
Saying goodbye isn't easy, but you learn to find the moments that make you smile. Going through this process, I'm finding that this holds true for people as well as places. It's a sense that I put into practice as much in teaching and writing history - which by definition often involves a contingency of goodbyes and letting go - as much as in everyday life. In some ways, dad's sense that something could be could be worn and faded and heavily-used speaks to the way I think about practicing history. Sometimes its hard to face and just as hard to put to rest, but there's always something to learn from it.