A Hat to Span The Generations

HOW do I love thee? Let me count the ways."

Confiscating Bob's hats is one broad way for Victor. We have snapshots to prove it, taken casually because they presented cute souvenir opportunities - but totaling to an irrefutable record of our young man's claim to the title "the man of many hats."

Bob, certainly, has to be the original man-of-many-hats in order for Victor to imitate him. (Imitation, it may be underscored, is still the sincerest form of flattery.) The rapport between these two gentlemen, separated by well over half a century (statistically only), is remarkable. Whether it's at our house or at Victor's, wherever Bob's hat is set down, Victor snatches it up and settles it promptly on his own head.

A winter scene comes to mind. We are at Victor's house, minding him while his mother is off shopping. He and his new neighbor, Julie, intend to take the puppy out for an airing. He struggles into his boots, parka, and scarf, picks his gloves (stiff, but dry) off the radiator, and dons Bob's fake-fur Alpine. The hat slides over his eyes and ears, covering his face. Then, when he bends to snap the dog's leash, it falls off.

"You can't wear that!" Julie bosses, looking at me.

"She's right. Your ears will freeze."

"I can, too. Papa-Bob lets me wear any hat I want."

He turns to Bob for approval. "Well my husband grins. "She's in charge, you know."

"Take it off or stay indoors," I decree. "Here's your hat." (Julie, who is one whole month older and half-a-head taller, smirks knowingly.)

He dodges me. "I won't be cold," he argues, plunging his face deep inside the phony fur, pulling out the earflaps. Emerging, he points out: "Right here, see? This is Papa-Bob's warm place for his bulb spot."

Bob, who is slightly bald, shrugs. We compromise. The puppy is yelping, straining toward the door. Victor, with sour resignation, permits me to put his own knit cap under Bob's - and out they go. Neither he nor Julie is quite certain who is one up....

I think of spring, and I think of the soft blue demin headpiece Bob dons for gardening. Usually the brim of that hat is down over Victor's eyes as he helps plant radish seeds. When they go fishing, it's the jungle-camouflage softie he confiscates before tangling his initial cast in a hazel bush behind them. The day he caught his lone sunfish he had it on. Now that particular hat, a sunshiny day, and a drive up a rural road to a weed-choked pond add up to perfection - like the snap-in parts of a favorite fishing rod.

Midsummer, the old straws come out. Bob and I each have one, with our initials inside. Nine out of 10 times, though, the one marked A. is left for me - while the B. goes on Victor's head. It goes without saying that none of these assorted headpieces ever fit him. But under each one is the forward-pitched head, the dark, mischievous eyes (when they can be discerned), and the impish grin. "Oh, well," Bob grins in response, "there's more where that came from." He has, of course, others. But even his best dr ess fedora is beginning to look a bit battered, thanks to such indulgence. (Acknowledged or otherwise, another name for it is love.)

There is, finally, the brown beret. I scouted at least six department stores in the area before Victor's mother located it, scant weeks before his last birthday. By that time the price was no object - besides, it came from London. It "fits any size," except a four-year-old dome. That doesn't deter Victor. "What's Papa-Bob's is mine to share," he informs anyone about to carp.

"Is this how you wear it?" He tilts it to one side. "Do I look like an artist?" He smells it. From Bob's head to his is no distance at all. It smells of acceptance, of unconditional devotion, of secure belonging. Today he's Papa-Bob, artist - greater than Rembrandt. Yesterday, Izaac Walton, or Liberty Bailey - or William Tell. Tomorrow?

And why didn't I buy that old stovepipe topper I saw at the antique mart last week? I must call and see if it's still available. What an investment in - President of the United States, circa 2028, perhaps?

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