Head to toe, an individual

Who's responsible for the hats, you ask? The nine-year-old on the right there. She is my colorful lady, and has been ever since I came along to be her granddaughter. By the time we met she'd traded in those high-button shoes for lord knows how many new models. But her blue eyes and defiant style she renewed year after year, polishing them until their intensity was sufficient to shake your senses. This elegant bohemienne was like no one else. She walked to the beat of - no, not a different drum - an entirely different band. And if she loved you and feared you might get trapped in the mundanity of some predictable ''normal'' beat, you could bet she'd try to trip you up.

I've lost track of the number of times she happily hurled me into what she saw as the blissful state of uniqueness. When I was thirteen and wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else that age, she brought me a betassled red fez from Morocco. Mother made me wear it to church to show I was grateful. I shuffled into Sunday School, cheeks flushed a deeper scarlet than that hat. As I walked the black tassle swayed to and fro, and I grumbled to myself that one thing my benefactor knew absolutely nothing about was teenage fashion. She proved it again and again. Each Christmas and birthday found me gulping before opening her packages: lederhosen, a four-leaf bikini, a grass skirt, pink and black kaftan (''airs you out in the summer,'' she assured me), yellow West African shoes pointed as ice picks and curled up at the toes (''so-oo comfortable!'' she exclaimed). Always, at my mother's prodding, I put on the gifts - expressing a thanks aimed only at the thought behind the present.

For her adult self my grandmother used to make hats out of entire bowls of plastic fruit or masses of peacock feathers. Atop her fine head, they took on a nearly elegant air. Still, whenever she wore them I marveled in disbelief, while her husband of many decades grinned, now and then blowing away a feather that dangled near his nose.

Years later I realized he had reason to grin: he was married to one of the world's undaunted, independent spirits. There was a kind of exhilaration to be found in daily walking beside this daredevil woman who could not be made to feel awkward no matter how the mouths of onlookers gaped at her parade. I grew to love walking at her side. A large measure of her confidence came from the fact that she was mightily aware of life's variety while happily oblivious to the notion of ''norm.'' That norm tried again and again to tell her what to think, say and wear, but she was too busy speaking her own mind, and plucking what she loved from countless cultures and imaginings, to notice.

There was terrific freedom (stretching well beyond the realm of hats) in following those imaginings. More than half a century after graduating from Columbia Teachers College, she began hopping the subway to Hunter College for French, and later Spanish, classes with graduate students three generations her junior. (''Haven't you graduated yet?'' asked one young man.)

The unusual fed her. And she, being her inimitable self, consistently fed herself from within. Whether she was on her own, painting Maine's seacoast or entertaining a roomful of friends with stories, I never knew her to be lonely. Perhaps because loneliness has as much to do with missing one's own original self as with feeling abandoned - and in her boldness she was forever finding her own peculiar soul.

One of my few regrets in life is that I no longer have the red fez, nor the woman who gave it. But that woman and the thought of that gift continue as happy forces in my life. As I write this, I am wearing yellow wooden shoes. Earlier today, when I walked through town toward the library, old-timers on the street snickered and pointed. ''Dutch shoes!'' exclaimed the fellow with the grey stubble pressing through his chin.

''Yup,'' I grinned.

''Never thought I'd see such funny feet walk by me in Maine,'' he added.

''Well, you don't know my grandmother, sir,'' I said firmly, clomping onward to the library.

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