Friday, August 5, 2011

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?

Out of the closet and onto my head!

Who’s That Cat in the Hat?


“You know, Sondra, we’re going to take up a collection to buy you a new hat.”

I was drinking coffee with the guys at the city shop.

“I don’t know. I’m used to seeing her in that hat; I think it is who she is.”

“Old and wrinkled?”

“I was thinking ‘eccentric’.”

“Wait,” I protested. “I like this hat. It keeps the sun off my face and stays on my head in the wind.” My straw hat has survived many summers. It is, I admit, a little bit stained, a little bit crumpled. Okay, it looks like it has been stomped on, slept in and dragged through prickly pear. The left brim is rolled tightly. The right brim sports splotches of blue paint. The crown is smashed. The whole thing resembles a warped UFO. “Why, this fine hat is just getting broken in. It’s comfortable, like my favorite pair of Birkenstocks.”

I eyeballed my three friends in their baseball caps. “At least I don’t have hat head,” I said, maliciously.

I love hats. Over the years I have accumulated a modest collection. When I was preparing to move back to my childhood hometown, my sister asked me, “What will you do with all your hats? Women don’t wear hats in Harlem .”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t wear hats. People will stare at you. You’ll feel ridiculous. You’ll see.”

“That’s silly. I’ll wear my hats wherever I feel like it,” I said. My sister just grinned and said, “Uh huh.”

Sure enough, after I had lived here a few months, without realizing it, I had conformed to the prevailing fashion. I often scanned the closet shelves for the right hat to wear, only to close the door, and leave the house bare-headed. My hats sat lonely on the shelves, collecting dust. I bought a couple baseball caps to wear on windy days, but I never wear them.

One day I was gathering clothing and household items for the Salvation Army. I have a loosely held rule that if it hasn’t been used in the past year, it becomes a serious contender for the donation box. I opened my closet and there they sat, abandoned and forlorn. My straw hats, my wool hats, my felt hats, my cloth hats. Silk hats, velvet hats, tapestry hats, fur hats, feather hats. My designer leopard hat. My fiberglass hard hat that an artist friend had made for me. Vintage hats, knit hats, grass hats, winter hats, summer hats. Expensive hats. Hats I made myself. Hats from junk stores. All unworn.

My poor neglected orphaned hats. I took them in arms. I heard the echo of my sister’s voice, “You won’t wear hats in Harlem .” I stared at the visible evidence of my foolish attempt at conformity.

Since that day my hats are out of the closet and on my head. In the summer I often wear my battered favorite straw. In the cold of winter I especially like my fleece-lined hat with ear flaps. This morning I plucked my red straw hat, circa 1960, out of the pile and popped it on my head. I wore it to the post office and I wore it to the grocery. Nobody pointed and snickered. One sweet gentleman smiled, winked and complimented, “Nice hat.”

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

July 21, 2011

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