Cottonwood seeds, my dad, and me: 20 years and a day after a funeral

I wasn’t going to write a post about the 20 year anniversary of my dad’s death. That was on May 15th. I thought I might write about the 20 year anniversary of his funeral, which was on May 19th. Reflecting on the funeral ritual and tying it to my own identity development, I thought, might be reasonable sociology content for whatever my blog is becoming. I also thought it would probably be more personal and self indulgent than I feel like being right now, so I was going to let the anniversaries pass without comment.

Then, this morning, May 20th, I was driving to our district high school to vote on the school budget. I was imagining some snarky tweets like “I vote yes in school budget elections just to piss off the Syracuse.com ‘cut my taxes’ crowd.” I was mentally crafting some pretty terrific tweets as I turned on to Grand Avenue and headed for the school when the windblown cottonwood seeds engulfed my car and entered the open windows.

My dad used to say, as best I remember the saying*, “when the cottonwood’s a-flying, the fish are a bitin’.” I think he fished less than he would have liked, but I actually have a good number of fishing related memories of time we spent together. I never much liked fishing or fish, and today fishing is about the last thing I’d do to pass the time. Nonetheless, every spring when the cottonwood flies I think of that saying, I think of my dad, and I think of his funeral procession.

It was on the ride from the church to the cemetery that the saying really got burned into my memories of my father. I was riding with my family in an SUV behind the hearse (did we call them SUVs, then?), we were heading north on Janesville’s Ringold street, approaching my elementary school, and for some reason the ‘Snow’ song “Informer” is strongly associated with this memory (was it on the radio? No way, right?). And of course the cottonwood was flying. My mom quoted my father’s fishing wisdom, ensuring that every spring since, at unexpected moments, memories of my dad would enter my thoughts through an open car window.

I held on to a few of my father’s things after he died: a fishing knife I lost sometime during college; a business card I’ve misplaced somewhere in my messy home office; and a jeweler’s loupe I pull out occasionally for no real reason. These material things symbolize memories of my dad, sure, but they do more than that too. They keep the relationship with my dad alive. That’s why I kept them and why I occasionally spend time with them. But it’s the cottonwood seeds more than anything else that makes my dad feel present. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in afterlife or souls. I do, however, believe in memory and emotion, and in their fundamental place in identity. The memories and emotions the cottonwood seeds trigger are a function of that relationship with my dad, which continues to structure who I am 20 years later.

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*the accuracy of the memory is less important than the existence of the memory

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