Memoir Writing


Did You Ever Wear a Hat?


Early in my memoir work, I came across an exercise offered by Bob Greene and D. G. Fulford in their book To Our Children's Children, Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come. In this book they suggested answering the question, "Did you ever wear a hat?" From this exercise I learned what a faithful servant the mind is. Give it the least little clue, a simple request to come up with a memory and it will do so. Give it a little encouragement by listening carefully to what it has to offer and you will find yourself remembering far more about who you were and all the wonderful things that you have done than you ever would have expected. Below you will see what I came up with when I answered that question.


Example: Did You Ever Wear a Hat?

There have been times in my life when hat wearing was a done thing--when I was a student nurse, for instance. And there was the little frilly hat that one wore to the dreaded company parties when Bill was a young engineer at Westinghouse. So there was a time when I had two hat boxes full of hats. Those boxes didn't make the cut when we decided what to bring when we moved back to California in the early seventies.

The specific hat that comes to mind today is not one of the party hats, nor the nursing hat. It is, rather, the tall navy blue straw hat with a perky daisy on it. In spite of the daisy, it managed to not look at all like a hat to be worn by Minnie Pearl of Grand Ole Opera fame.

This was a hat that my Aunt Leo picked out for me. Aunt Leo would have loved to have had me for a daughter. I would have been someone else had things worked out that way. When my mother was dying of bone cancer, I lived in Maryland. When she first got the diagnosis, we drove down to Texas to be with her. I wanted to stay and help take care of her. She told me that a woman's place was with her husband, and sent me along home.

One morning, a month or so later, I had a call from my father saying I should come home right away if I wanted to see my mother alive. He met me at the airport. I had not gotten there in time.

There is a lot to do, and nothing after a death. Aunt Leo who had been spending her days taking care of Mama and was suddenly at loose ends so she came swooping in to take charge of me.

What one always did in my part of Texas after it is all over was to go down town and buy something appropriate for the funeral. It is a given that what you have on hand will not be appropriate. You can be sure that what I had packed was not appropriate for the funeral. It sounds a little odd, to go out shopping at such a time, but it is something to do while you wait for the funeral to be over. It also has the advantage of getting you out of the way of well meaning people who want to come and say clichés about God picking the best flowers from his garden.

My Aunt Leo was not one to buy clothing at Scarboroughs, which was the most well known department store in Austin, nor was she one to shop next door at the elite Butteries which was a full three stories shorter than Scarboroughs and at which all the sales ladies wore tape measures around their necks. Mama used to go there occasionally if she wanted some really nice piece of lace or something like that.

Aunt Leo went a Shoppes out on University. I had never been in a shop out beyond Hyde Park, like that. Aunt Leo and her personal shopper found a navy blue linen suit with just a hint of white raw silk at the neck. And, of course, the Italian shoes. Higher heeled than I had ever worn, and more comfortable than you would believe. And then there was the hat. Aunt Leo and her clerk were very happy with their selections. They had managed to put together an outfit that would be perfect for a young person like me to wear to her mother's funeral and later could be worn to almost any occasion.

And it was true. For years and years, if something came up, I could always count on the outfit seeing me through any toney thing I got stuck going to. All I had to do was pull that suit out of its zippered storage bag, put on the shoes and pull out the hat from the box, and viola; I would become someone who could rise to the occasion. It was always as though Aunt Leo and her special clerk had come along with me to nudge me into picking up the correct spoon at the fancy luncheon.

When my daughter Sandy was in Jr. Hi., she had a bit part in a school play and managed to steal the whole show. She borrowed my marvelous hat. I believe that it was last time I saw the hat. I like to believe that it was the leading lady who stole the hat when the play was over out of sheer spite. The leading lady should be the one who got all the applause, but then again, she didn't have the hat.


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