Saturday, March 12, 2011
THE MEMORABLE HAT
My dad always wore a hat. He grew up in a generation where men wore hats both summer and winter. In the winter it was for warmth; in the summer it was for shade. But I think it was a bit more than merely functional for my dad. He was very conscious of his image. He wanted to look like a successful businessman, and in his eyes the hat made the man.
The picture above was taken in the early 1930s. His work during that time, which encompassed the depression years, was always in “outside sales” – selling (or trying to sell) tap dancing lessons door to door, Wearever aluminum pots and pans to groups of people who all met together for a dinner he cooked in their homes, or American Alabaster home décor items made in Colorado to big department stores. To be successful, he felt he needed to look nifty; the hat was part and parcel of his look.
And by the mid 1940s he was on his way as a successful business owner of a smallish major appliance store, and he met the customers with his dapper suits and hats. Life was good for him and the family until the early 1960s when he became caught up in drink and began a downward course that ended with him in an alcoholic ward at a hospital in the early 1970s, close to death. He did not die, but slowly recovered enough to go into a board and care home for a number of years while he regained enough sense to function on his own. Next he spent a number of years living in a small studio apartment in a poor part of town about 60 miles from where I lived. The amazing thing is that through all these years his favorite hat had followed him -- into the hospital, into the board and care home and was still intact when he moved into that apartment, although by that time it had truly seen better days.
In the meantime, my mother had died and as the oldest of his three children I assumed the shepherding responsibility for him. The years of drink rendered him stubborn and difficult to care for. He refused to move near me, even though I was working full time and could not move closer to him. He insisted on doing everything his way; his physical living conditions deteriorated but he balked at offers of help. He was well enough to care for himself, although not in a way that was satisfying to his children. But our hands were tied, as he was too competent to cart off to a care facility.
Through all this he loved his old hat, which had become really tacky over the years. Often he would ask me to buy him a new hat, but when I did he never liked it and told me to take it back. He knew his hat needed replacing but he wanted a replica of his 1930s hat and nothing of the 1990s satisfied him. He lived for 20 years after my mother died. He never replaced the hat and wore it, beat up and dirty, every day of those 20 years.
As he neared 90, he began having health problems that necessitated occasional hospital care. He was an obnoxious patient, pulling out Foley catheters, refusing to eat, and sometimes discharging himself against medical advice. The hospital had a social worker who helped me through this awful time, and it was only because of her help that I was able to visit my father without crying for hours afterwards. At one point I told her how distressed I had been over the constant buying and returning of a hat and she said that perhaps I needed to simply tell him that I would not be doing that anymore. She noted that maybe I needed to take the hat away when he wasn’t looking and get rid of it, forcing him to get a new one. She said sometimes family had to do that to old people when they stopped thinking straight. I thought it over, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. As mad as he made me, I still felt bound by the parent-child ties and for as long as I could, I wanted to let him call the shots on his own life.
He finally went into an assisted living home near my home, and life became a little easier for all of us. One day I went to visit him and he asked me to take him to the grocery store. As we headed out the door of his room, he stopped and then stepped back into his room. He looked into a mirror over his dresser and adjusted his poor shapeless hat to a different angle. “You know, Tibby” he said to me, using his pet word for me, “I always thought I looked a little like Frank Sinatra in this hat.” And with that, he assumed a jaunty little hitch in his step and off we went.
When he died at 93 after a week in hospice care, he still had his hat on the bed with him. I couldn’t help but think how much he loved that hat and how relieved I was that I hadn’t taken it away from him like the social worker suggested.
What I had seen that day in the mirror was an old man getting pretty darn senile, but what he had seen was an old man who still, because of the hat, reminded him of Frank Sinatra.