My friends Steve and Carla once lived in a frigid, unlighted mine shaft in the Colorado Rockies overlooking Boulder. They had very little money, and supported themselves by scavenging in dumpsters for items to sell, use, or eat. Nonetheless, they had TVs, lamps, furniture, clothes, sometimes even a car. It was a primitive existence, but exhilarating compared to my relatively middle-class life.
I moved away and lost touch with Steve and Carla until, one Easter weekend, my husband, my daughter, and I traveled back to the Rockies and looked them up. I was amazed to find them in the telephone book. The reunion was stupendous. We hiked, shopped, and talked late into the night, catching up on all that had happened in the past eight years.
Steve and Carla now lived beneath a florist, who gave them all the “seconds” — flawed flowers unfit for seventy-dollar bouquets. Their place was a riot of color and filled with heavenly scents. Lilies, carnations, bougainvilleas, irises, and other blooms were jammed in jars all around.
The next day was Easter, and the little town in which my friends lived was hosting an Easter-bonnet contest, with fifty-dollar prizes for the winners in each category. Feeling creative, I suggested that we use the flowers to make our own bonnets and join in the fun. Steve had an old top hat he’d found in a dumpster and a sweat-stained cowboy hat he’d worn when he worked as a shipfitter in Alaska. He generously offered to let me decorate them, on the condition that I not poke a single hole in either one. Securing the flowers was an interesting challenge. I resorted to rubber bands and double-sided tape, sewing the flowers to the bands. In a fit of joyous excess, I didn’t use just some of the flowers — I used all of them. The hats were beautiful.
Steve and I donned the bonnets, and off we went to the contest. He was stunning in the morning sun, his lanky, six-foot-two frame seeming to stretch impossibly high thanks to the outrageously decorated hat atop his head. He looked like a god of fertility with his great swinging strides. Now and then, a gust of wind would pluck off a bloom and send it flipping carelessly through the air.
We swept the prizes.
Rapid City, South Dakota
Mom is sitting up in her hospital bed, showing me a department-store ad for a turban-style hat. “Isn’t this good-looking?” she asks. “It will be perfect for the spring.”
It’s February now, and we don’t expect her to live until spring. She’s not receiving chemotherapy — her cancer is too far advanced — but is on an experimental drug instead.
This conversation reminds me of another we once had — a rare exchange for us, but one I imagined other mothers and daughters shared routinely: She showed me a blouse in a newspaper ad and asked, “Isn’t it pretty?” just as she might have asked a girlfriend, if she’d had one. “It’s Dacron, a brand-new fabric,” she said, “and you never have to iron it.” She ordered two — one white, one pale blue —and wore them for years. I remember them hanging in the bathroom to dry, wrinkle-free.
Now she orders two turbans — one beige, one white — and sends me to pick them up. The department store is in a mall within walking distance of the hospital. I’m relieved to be outside, even in the sticky heat of Houston. Back home in California, having read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s On Death and Dying, I felt confident and informed. I thought I knew how to talk to my mother about what’s going on. But now, at her bedside, I feel voiceless.
I ask the saleswoman to wrap the hats in tissue so that the package will look pretty. When I give them to my mother, she is pleased, and we pretend that everything is fine. We talk about the garden outside her window, and about the volunteers, well-to-do women who bring her cocktails and steak dinners from fancy restaurants. I don’t tell her I am sad and afraid, and mad that she is drinking again. We don’t mention the caustic chemical dripping into her veins twenty-four hours a day. She doesn’t describe the pain this drug causes her. We don’t talk about the colostomy bag she wears now that a big piece of her colon is gone. We certainly don’t talk about death.
I am twenty-two, and it will be years before I learn how to just sit with someone who is suffering and not need to say anything. It will be years before I am ready (too late) to ask her forgiveness for my condemnation of her drinking; for the times I yelled back and hit her, using her abuse as an excuse. And it will be decades before I begin to understand how afraid she was, and how few resources she had.
In May I come back to Texas for my mother’s funeral. The experimental drug caused a stroke. Her oncologist says she was lucky: had she lived, she would have endured terrible pain and suffering.
Going through her belongings in the days that follow, I find the old Dacron blouses, now grayed and limp with age, and the turbans, still in the department-store bag, wrapped in their pretty tissue.
My father liked to wear different hats, and assumed different identities to match. When I was nine, out of the blue, Dad began wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and a shiny steer-head belt buckle. When teased about his getup, he would joke that he was a “man of many hats.” I was confused and embarrassed by his performance. Later, I found out we were moving from the East Coast to Arizona.
After traveling to Europe, Dad took to wearing Greek fishermen’s hats and telling stories — many of them made-up — about places he’d been. He was able to sell his stories to most people. As an adolescent I resented his self-aggrandizing lies and the pleasure he took in “putting one over” on friends and acquaintances. No one ever caught him in a lie, but I could tell by the watery glint in his eye that he knew I was watching, and counted on my silence.
Much later in life, his son-in-law gave him a baseball cap with the U.S. Navy emblem on it. It wasn’t long before my father began to tell people that he had served in the navy, using his knowledge of history to make up plausible World War II stories. I burned silently with anger and shame, feeling he disgraced all those who had served.
In 1993, my father and I sat by my mother’s hospital bed as she made a futile attempt to recover from a brain-stem stroke. Her neurosurgeon, spying the cap atop my father’s head, asked if he had been in the navy. He of course said yes, and, for the first time, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Dad,” I said, “that’s not true. You never served in the navy.”
After a long, uncomfortable silence, the surgeon examined my mother and left. My father turned on me, his voice hissing with anger: “How dare you call me a liar in front of someone?”
“Well, you were lying,” I responded.
For the four remaining years of his life, my father’s anger toward me never abated. But for me, telling the truth about that hat was the starting point of my healing.
Nobody ever ignored Idy Bates. Her dresses and hats were all expensive, dramatic, and at least fifty years old. She swept around Carmel, New York, in purple, black, or maroon outfits with long, swoopy skirts and fringed shawls, wide sleeves and low necks. Even at the A&P she wore clothes encrusted with spangles, beads, and sequins, and shot through with metallic thread. She glimmered and twinkled when she walked. But it was the fire in her eyes you noticed most.
Idy was a fundamentalist Christian. She never taught in church without wearing a hat, for it would be a disgrace for a woman to pray or prophesy without her head covered (1 Cor. 11:5-6). She led Bible studies, but only for women, girls, and children under twelve, for it would be unseemly for a woman to usurp authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12). Her specialty was the Book of Revelation, and she illustrated her lessons with several huge, colorful charts showing the armor, horses, and bloody battles. She was the only church instructor who freely used the word whore — as in “whore of Babylon.” It certainly snapped us to attention.
In 1960, to counteract the banning of prayer from public schools, the state of New York released children from school for an hour each week to go to a church or synagogue for religious instruction. As most rural churchwomen were too busy to teach in the middle of the week, any who could were given sizable groups of students and unlimited leeway in how to teach them. Single and childless, Idy was in her glory. She would drive up to the Baptist church in her black Hudson, wearing a dark green dress and a feathered hat, and march in with her yellowed charts rolled under one arm. An hour later she would emerge from her classroom, followed by a string of quiet, dazed, glassy-eyed children. “Hungry for the Word,” she’d announce to no one in particular. “Those children are just hungry for the Word.”
When I was eight months pregnant with my first child, my dad died suddenly from a heart attack. People were worried that the shock might send me into premature labor, or that the strain of a wake and a funeral might cause my blood pressure to skyrocket.
On the day of the funeral, I managed to survive the standing, sitting, and kneeling of the service, but once I got into the limousine I realized that the hour-and-a-half drive was going to become painful. So I stretched out on the seat and placed my legs up on my husband’s lap.
We were almost out of Manhattan when we had to stop for a red light at First Avenue and 127th Street. From my sideways position, I saw out the side window three homeless men sitting around a garbage can in which they had built a fire to stave off the early-spring chill. Seeing my dad’s hearse, the three men stood up and, as one, took off their tattered hats, held them over their hearts, and bowed their heads. They remained standing there like that until the light changed and we drove off.
Those three men will never know the kindness they did me. And I smile to think of them, because I know that my dad, had he been able, would have stopped and bought them lunch.
New York, New York
Bicycling through Tennessee, I bought a worn blue-and-white engineer’s cap for seventy-five cents at a thrift store, because the sun was bright and I needed something to cover my head. Though I almost decided at the last minute not to buy it, I soon fell in love with the cap and began wearing it all the time. It grew dirt-stained and threadbare, and the cardboard visor developed a permanent crease in the middle, but I wore it all the same.
A couple of years later, while visiting friends in Washington State, I left the cap in a movie theater. We were halfway home when I remembered it and made my friends turn around. The four of us, accompanied by two ushers, searched the theater seats and floor and even the garbage cans, but the cap didn’t turn up. I worried about it all night.
The next day, after breakfast, I went back to the theater to look again. It was my last chance to find the cap, as I was leaving town that morning. When I discovered the theater was locked, my heart sank. I decided to leave a note with my home address, asking the theater employees to send me my hat, should they find it.
About a month later, the seventy-five-cent cap arrived in the mail. I sent the theater ten dollars and a long letter commending everyone there for resisting what must have been the enormous urge to keep such a superlative hat.
I am back in the hole for fighting. Being in the hole is not so bad once you get used to it. Pen and paper in hand, I sit hunched over on the floor, attempting to complete my twenty-second short story. It’s no use; the right words just won’t come. Reminded how hard it is to write without a dictionary or thesaurus, I return story number twenty-two to the folder.
No sooner do I lie on my bunk with a battered 1992 issue of Writer’s Digest than my pal Lefty calls down to my cell to ask if I can fix his headphones; the right speaker keeps fading in and out. “Send ’em down,” I say. I take the headphones apart and find that a wire has broken loose inside the speaker housing. It’s going to be a chore to reattach it without a soldering iron. Rubber cement should do the trick, and I happen to have a small amount left.
When the headphones are working fine, I send them back to Lefty and spend the next seven hours preparing a variety of legal pleas for other prisoners. Ever since I moved up the ladder from jailhouse lawyer to paralegal, I’ve been inundated with work. I write up a motion for leave to appeal in forma pauperis for Christian; a verified civil-rights complaint for James; a motion for relief from judgment for Conrad; an administrative appeal of a major-misconduct report for Cujo.
Afterward, I mediate several disputes between guys who are threatening one another with great bodily harm over: whether you can castle if you have previously moved your king (no); whether a royal flush beats a full house (yes); whether Plymouth made a car called the Superbee (no; Dodge made the Superbee, and Plymouth made the Superbird). Then I work on my petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
I spend a couple of hours on my schoolwork: correspondence courses in electricity, algebra, and basic math. I help out Shabazz, who is studying for his GED. I spell and define intrinsic and tentative for Droopy.
I spend several hours carving my chess set. The pieces are made out of Irish Spring and Ivory soap. For a knife I use the plastic laminated edges of my state identification card, my paralegal card, and my National Lawyers Guild Prison Law Project membership card.
Third shift already. Jesus, where has the day gone? I take story twenty-two out of the folder again; the word inveterate pops to mind: perfect! I put pen to paper and the words begin to flow.
On the outside, I never wore hats — except when committing armed robberies. Now I wear many.
Robert F. Nelson
It was robin’s-egg blue with the letters MR in red, for Midget Rebels, the baseball team on which I played the summer before sixth grade. The bill was uncreased, and the cap was stiff in the front, so that I didn’t have to put a baseball card inside for support. It fit snugly, almost never blowing off when I rode my bike, and represented all the incipient manhood I had earned on the diamond, spitting and punching my glove, tossing the ball “around the horn,” keeping up a constant chatter. I wore that cap from dawn to dusk.
After baseball practice, I would ride my bike to Melanie’s house, and we would sit on her front porch and talk. She was my sweetheart. As we began to acknowledge that we were boyfriend and girlfriend, my visits became more obligatory and less spontaneous. Melanie acquired “rights” I hadn’t anticipated: she wanted to wear my hat.
Uncomfortable, yet excited, I handed it to her. She delighted in wearing it, but for the rest of the afternoon, I felt naked.
When I wore the cap home, it seemed different somehow. I could feel her warmth, her energy in it; we had exchanged something through my hat. I sensed that this was an experience beyond our years, and from then on, the way my hat felt on my head at any given time indicated the strength of our connection.
One day, Melanie broke up with me. I rode my bike home from her house crying, my hat once again merely my own.
They all wore hats — to hide their eyes from our view. There were five or six of them piled in a brown sedan, all teenagers. They drove by us and shouted out the window, “Go back to Africa!” Then they sped away, waving their hats wildly in the distance.
My mother screamed back at them, trying to act tough, but they didn’t hear. They were too busy celebrating their victory.
That day I lost my trust in strangers of other races.
Orland Park, Illinois
Years ago, when my husband, Ted, turned forty, he left me for his nineteen-year-old secretary. We divorced, and I’ve long since forgiven him and “moved on,” as they say.
Ted’s current lover of some years, Diane, is a corporate attorney with lots of money and power and beautiful hair. They live together, but have chosen not to marry, for tax purposes.
This summer, Diane and Ted traveled to Europe with Ted’s sister and brother-in-law, Emma and Sam, who are still my dear friends. Emma and Sam had always thought Diane was OK, although they were concerned by some of Ted’s life choices. All hell broke loose, however, halfway into the trip, and the two couples elected to go their own ways. Afterward, Emma confided this to me: Diane looks just awful in hats.
And all these many years after the divorce, something in my heart still had not transcended, had not risen above, was not enlightened, because I loved hearing that news — that my ex-husband loves a woman who looks awful in hats. As far as I was concerned, this was concrete proof that there is justice in the universe, after all. Because I, you see, look simply stunning in hats.
The first time I climbed Mt. Roberts in Juneau by myself, I was thirty-seven. I had an acute fear of heights, but that had become irrelevant in light of my recent humiliation: A violent man was lodged in my heart like a thorn dipped in poison. Being jilted by a man who fantasized about murdering people had actually hurt. I needed to rid my mind of this lunatic by going someplace he could never go. Bloated and out of shape after years of ordering people around from expensive chairs, he was no mountain climber.
So one muddy day I put on my best Salvation Army climbing outfit: hiking boots with worn soles, droopy jeans, and a couple of musty sweatshirts. I had a nice cap, though, from the Green Mountain Club in Vermont, where one of my brothers — a real hiker — climbs. Donning it, I looked in the mirror and saw a spry, independent New England girl once more, someone who doesn’t muck around with fools.
It was a beautiful climb.
About thirty feet from my house, a pipe sticks up from the underground sewage line, which continues downhill to the septic tank. One day, I noticed that effluent had forced the cap off the pipe and was overflowing around it. After several unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem, I called a plumber.
He arrived — a short, overweight man wearing a bright green baker’s hat with many fine vertical pleats. The hat gave him an air of cocky assuredness. After a cursory look at the pipe, he and his middle-aged son got right to work. Unfortunately, however, even with their hundred-foot snake fully extended, they found no blockage.
While they worked, I followed the path of the sewage line down the hill, and just before I reached the septic tank, I noticed ground moisture. I called them down to look. The son scraped with his shovel, and there was the sewage line, buried only a couple of inches deep, but seemingly intact. As the three of us stood contemplating our next move, the son planted the point of his shovel in the ground to lean on it.
The tip of the shovel hit the thin-walled pipe at the perfect angle to break it open. The plumber and I caught the full blast of raw sewage right in the face. In a split second, we were both drenched. We turned our backs as the sewage peppered us unmercifully, but it was impossible to get away; the spray arced out more than fifty feet.
Finally, the pipe was emptied, and the deluge stopped, followed by a moment of stunned silence. Spitting constantly as sewage ran down into our mouths, the plumber and I looked at each other. My gray hair flopped forward into my eyes, my glasses dripped with liquids and solids, and my favorite white shirt resembled a brownish gray abstract painting. His finely pleated hat was now a mottled gray, with fibrous particles hanging from it and stuck in its pleats. Still, the hat had lost none of its jauntiness. Caught in an array of intense feelings, neither of us spoke. Finally, the plumber spat again and said, “You sure look shitty.”
I was browsing in an expensive store, one I rarely buy anything from unless I throw caution to the wind. Suddenly, I saw a wonderful straw hat with a wide brim folded up in back and bound with a wide lace ribbon that hung down in a flirty kind of way. I liked it right off — but for a seventy-two-year-old woman? Discarding the thought of buying it, I went home, but I knew the hat was meant for me, and the universe knew it, too, because when I went back it was still there, beckoning.
I quickly wrote the check, brought the hat home, and placed it on a shelf in my closet. Did I dare wear it? I stole a peek at it now and again, and even took it off the shelf and put it on my dresser. Shall I exchange the lace for a plain scarf? No, the hat was perfect. Still, I hesitated.
Then one day when I was going into town, I brought the hat with me, laying it on the passenger seat. At the beauty salon, I got out, put on the hat, and, with the car window as my mirror, gave it a saucy flip. I felt quite daring, and much younger than seventy-two. As I walked in for my facial, one of the ladies commented on how pretty I looked.
Later, as I was driving home, I pulled into a car-repair shop to replace a hubcap. As I left, a young man leaned out of a beat-up old car and said, “You look real lovely in your hat.” Seventy-two had never felt better.
Next, as I drove through a parking lot, a man raised his hand as if to tip his hat to me. My spirits rose even higher.
On my way home, I stopped at the bank, and when I walked in everyone turned around to look. An older gentleman even started talking with me and escorted me back to my car. By this time I was beginning to feel a bit flirty.
Now I wonder: was it the hat, or was it me? I think I’ll wear that naughty hat again soon.
Bonnie Calhoun Goochey
My grandma Nelly Griffin refused to leave Ireland without a decent hat on her head — “a grand hat,” as she put it. Though her family was not nearly the poorest in Cork in 1913, what money they had went to keep food on the table and the dream of a better life in America alive. Grandma hand-sewed linens that were sent to England, where people had plenty of food on the table and money left over for fancy imported tablecloths and embroidered pillowcases.
Each week, after the grocer and the milkman were paid, and a few pennies were dropped into the milk bottle that held the savings for the trip across the Atlantic, Grandma got up on her kitchen stool and added to her “hat fund,” kept in a little flowered sugar bowl.
There were times when the sugar bowl had to come down from the top shelf of the cupboard: when Grandpa Frank’s railroad pay didn’t stretch beyond food, rent, and milk; when my Aunt Theresa’s appendix burst during the Stations of the Cross the Easter she was six years old; when Grandpa Frank’s youngest brother needed a new dark blue suit to wear to his confirmation. Down came the sugar bowl to help pay for all these things.
Finally, despite the unexpected expenses, the day came when both the milk bottle and the sugar bowl were full, and Grandma Nelly went down the lane to Mrs. Ryan’s dress shop to buy her hat.
In our family album, there’s a picture of my mother, her siblings, and Grandma huddled together at the Cork dock, numb from the cold November wind and the realization that they are about to leave home. My grandmother’s hat is stiff and black, with a flounce of silk beneath its wide brim; her tiny, black-gloved hand holds it to her head.
San Pedro, California
I have a hat from each of my grandfathers: a Stetson from my grandfather in western Kansas, and a yarmulke from my grandfather in Queens, who fled Germany in the thirties.
I remember wearing the Stetson when my Kansas grandfather taught me to drive, in an old blue Ford pickup on the wide-open plains. I remember my other grandfather wearing his yarmulke for the Seder in Queens, and speaking and singing in a language I didn’t understand.
I have not embraced either of my grandfathers’ two cultures. I now live in the South and am married to a beautiful Filipino woman who works as a physician treating indigent Mexicans. I teach African American children and attend a Baptist church. I wonder what hat I will pass on to my grandson.
Robert E. Herndon
On my high-school baseball team, we never washed our hats. This was largely a matter of locker-room machismo and superstition: a washed hat was considered both unmanly and bad luck. But there was something deeper involved. Washing a hat was a sacrilege of sorts, the desecration of a sweat-soaked shrine. Washing a hat tainted its “soul” and robbed it of the history embedded in its blackened band and encrusted brim.
In college, I brought a hat with me when I went to southern Africa for six months of study, and I wore it everywhere: while traveling, on errands, to funerals, parties, and weddings. It was with me in Tanzania when I was arrested on trumped-up charges, and in Zimbabwe as I hitched rides across the scorched bush. It was repeatedly folded, pocketed, and handled; the brim lost its shape, and the logo, originally white, slowly faded into the black background. At the end of my trip, as I said goodbye to my new friends and acquaintances, one who was known for understatement said, “Ah, my friend, your hat is very dirty.”
I boarded my plane home on New Year’s Eve, the recent changes in my life weighing heavily on my mind. At dinner, I solemnly set aside the complimentary single-serving bottle of champagne. Then, weeks later, in an attempt at ceremony, I washed the hat with the contents of the tiny bottle, digging my fingers deep into the fabric and rubbing at the stains of its past — my past. When I’d washed away the dust and grime, its color and character were changed forever.
One month later, I lost it.
One autumn day, several women friends and I dressed warmly and headed for the beach. It was our first time meeting Ann’s new baby, Melanie, who was covered from head to foot in a padded pink snowsuit with fluffy white trim. Melanie fell asleep soon after we got there, and Ann went for a walk down the beach, leaving us a bottle in case the baby awoke.
Before Ann returned, Melanie woke up and began to wail. We tried the bottle. No good. We tried changing her diaper. Still she cried. We passed her around, taking turns cooing and tickling. Nothing. “She wants her mother,” I said authoritatively as I passed her to Debbie, a mother of two teenagers. We all watched as Debbie loosened Melanie’s bonnet strings and pulled the snowsuit hood off her head. As soon as the sound of the ocean reached her ears, the baby stopped crying, her tears forgotten as she listened, mesmerized.
Mount Vernon, New Hampshire
For most of the year my husband wore an ordinary baseball cap, but in winter he wore a black wool beret. He looked jaunty and exotic in it, with his mustache and his handsome, olive-skinned features. “Like a French artist,” I would tease him, and he would make me laugh by affecting a French accent.
One winter, I bought a pink wool beret to match his. In those early years of our marriage, we were enthusiastically involved in environmental causes, so when Edward Abbey, author of the environmentalist classic The Monkey Wrench Gang, came to town, we eagerly lined up to have him sign our copy of his book. Holding hands and wearing our berets, we came to the front of the line, and Abbey said, in a boisterous voice, “You two young lovebirds look so cute in your matching berets.” I blushed and told him that we were married and had a baby. He raised an eyebrow and smiled.
In the years that followed, we had another baby, and our idealism was dampened by the demands of raising a family and earning a living. Edward Abbey died. Now our marriage has broken up. My daughters recently found my long-forgotten beret crumpled at the bottom of a box of old clothes. They use it to play dress-up.
Their father still wears his.
South Burlington, Vermont
I was buying the house, but I wanted more; I wanted the hats that lay on Mrs. Buford’s bed, covering her chenille spread as completely as the blooms covered the plum trees in the back yard. Other hats were piled in the closet in white cardboard boxes, like a stack of birthday cakes.
Mrs. Buford was a Baptist minister’s widow. She hated to sell, but her mother back in Louisiana needed her. She had only just cashed in her husband’s life-insurance policy, she said, shaking her head. She had pulled up the carpets and refinished the hardwood floors — something he had never allowed when he was alive. Now she was leaving before she even had the thrill of painting her walls any color she pleased. They were churchgoing folk, she explained, hands on ample hips, so she’d still be needing some of her hats for Sundays. She just didn’t know how she’d get them all to Louisiana.
Give some to me, Mrs. Buford, I wanted to say. Let me wear one of your hats, and we’ll walk up the street arm in arm. We’ll take your gold Cadillac out of the garage and drive it to the beach with the windows rolled down. We’ll pull off our pantyhose, feel the wet sand between our toes. I’ll tie the ribbon in a big knot under my chin; I won’t let your hat fly away.
But you can’t say that kind of thing with your realtor around. I’d have to make an offer. I’d have to buy the house, then build a window seat in the kitchen and cover its cushions with big pink fabric roses like the ones tacked to the straw boater in Mrs. Buford’s hands. I’d plant bougainvillea, train it to climb the bungalow’s stucco walls. That radiant vine would hug my house tightly, the way I imagined hugging Mrs. Buford, embraced by her round, sweet-smelling arms.
Even though we lived in a small town, my mother, Jennie, envisioned herself as grand and tried valiantly to become a part of “society.” She had silver and china and crystal (though it was not the finest silver and her crystal was not Waterford). She knew how to set a table, bake fancy cakes and cookies, and embroider. And she knew how to wear hats.
When she went across town to attend a ladies’ luncheon in someone’s home, my mother always wore a hat. When the party was at our house, her friend Marion, who could drive her husband’s Buick, would pick up the other ladies, and they’d all arrive at noon in their hats and gloves carrying their flat purses. Marion always brought a bottle in a brown paper bag, which disappeared into the kitchen with her special green-bean-and-macaroni salad. The table was set with china and crystal and flowers and a white linen tablecloth, starched and spotless, with matching napkins. There were highball glasses lined up on the buffet, and cocktails were served before lunch.
As the party wore on, the laughing and giggling grew louder. Jennie lurched on the way into the kitchen for the chicken pastry puffs, and grabbed at the table. Angry at the misstep, she cursed, but then giggled. When she came back, someone said, “Shall we begin?” and Marion quickly passed the macaroni salad. Jennie sat down heavily in her chair, her lipstick smeared and her eyelids drooping. No one looked at her.
Holidays were hat times, too. On Christmas Day, my mother wore her winter hat — which matched her brown winter coat with the big mink collar — to dinner at Aunt Esther’s house. Mother also brought along her own little brown bag, which disappeared into the kitchen with the parkerhouse rolls, cranberries, and fruitcake. She laughed with Aunt Esther, and they toasted each other.
By mealtime, Jennie was sleepy from the warm kitchen and the brandy. She slumped in her chair, her little glass of brandy on the table in front of her. Before the gravy was passed, Jennie leaned to one side, and Dad gave her a gentle push. She shushed him, waving her hand dismissively. But she soon leaned over again, this time nearly to the floor. She pulled herself upright, and for a moment dinner continued. Then, as quietly as gravy being poured, Jennie fell forward toward her plate. Dad caught her just in time, pulled her to her feet, and escorted her, despite her protests, into Aunt Esther’s bedroom to sleep.
We left right after dinner, missing the fruitcake and Christmas cookies. It was dark out and the air was bitterly cold. Mother’s hat was tilted as she got into the freezing car. She puffed little clouds of warm air, then leaned back in the seat and fell asleep. The snowbanks made the streets even more silent than usual, and the street lights all wore halos.
Poor Jennie. All she wanted was to be somebody — somebody who wore lovely hats.