When my mother cleaned out the closet, she came upon the hats at the back: A deep-brimmed cloche, entirely appliqued with pheasant feathers. A black felt pill box meant to sit square on the head, with a single black feather etched in red, shooting off cunningly at an angle nearly horizontal to the crown. The list ran on and on. Did I want them?
I cradled the phone against my ear and paused to think. The hats belonged to my grandmother, who had recently passed on. I had loved my grandmother, loved her immensely, but did I want her hats? "How old are they?" I said, stalling for time.
"From the 1940s and '50s, I think. In the '60s she stopped wearing them; we all did," Mother added.
"Gee, I don't think so," I finally said. The closets in my New York apartment were already full. Moreover, like Mother, I hadn't worn a hat in years.
Mother fell silent for a moment. In an attempt to assuage her disappointment, I said, "Chris might like one or two, though." Chris is my daughter.
"Ask her," Mother said, her voice brightening.
It wasn't long after that we visited Mother in California. She looked at Chris and said, "Oh say, you must see the hats."
She led us upstairs to one of the spare bedrooms. Scattered on a bed were my grandmother's hats. I stood in the doorway, fighting back tears. It was as if my grandmother had suddenly entered the room, all the various aspects of her brought to life by the alter ego, or rather, alter egos, of her hats.
"Look at this!" Chris's voice echoed exultantly from across the room. She was standing in front of a dressing-table mirror, wearing one of the hats. It was black velvet, shaped like an inverted saucer. Rhinestones winked along the front; there was also a beguiling little smudge of a veil.
Gently, Chris brought the veil down (it was already torn in several places) over her forehead, where it came to rest just above the tip of her nose. She raised one eyebrow, instantly bringing to life the movie idols of my childhood: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Veronica Lake.
Gram, my grandmother, a looker?
Yes, once. The country club dance. Gramp in a dinner jacket, pacing the hall at the foot of the stairs; me sitting in the living room, over by the fire. Suddenly, at the top of the stairs, a rustle of green-gold silk, the same dress Gram wore every Christmas Eve, but made new and infinitely more glamorous by the addition of the hat.
I was still awash in a memory of my grandmother when I entered the room. From the pile of hats on the bed, I extracted a royal blue felt cloche with an ostrich feather of the same color designed to curve fetchingly across one cheek.
"Like something Princess Di might wear," I said to Chris and Mother. I elbowed Chris out of my way and took her place in front of the mirror.
"What about this?" Chris said laughing. "I don't think she'd wear this, do you?"
I turned round from the mirror and stared at Chris. She had discarded the little black inverted saucer for an almost brimless navy blue straw hat, with a four-inch- high crown anchored on the side by a single mustard yellow rose. She looked ridiculous, as if she were wearing an upside down pot on her head.
"Good grief, that's awful!" I snatched the hat off Chris's head and stuck it on my own. "But they wore them, they did," I said. I nodded instructively at Chris. "For club meetings and things." I turned back to the mirror, picked up an imaginary gavel, and brought it down hard on the dresser.
"Of course, she wasn't much of a club woman." Once again, I turned round from the mirror and addressed Chris. "But she did belong to Republican Women. You won't believe it, Chris, but at the beginning of the Vietnam War, she stood up at a Republican Women luncheon and made herself persona non grata by saying that we shouldn't get involved in a land war in Asia, that General MacArthur had warned against it, and if we didn't heed his advice we were going to be sorry. She could have been wearing a hat like this that day."
All in all, there were nine hats, every one of which Chris and I tried on and discussed at length.
"They're great. I want them all," she said.
She actually wore one a few weeks ago. The little inverted black saucer with the rhinestones and veil. Just right for an opening in Soho.
"Or is it?" Chris said, when she greeted me at the door of her Greenwich Village apartment. "Maybe it's a little much."
"Not at all," I replied reassuringly.
But in the cab on the way downtown, I kept stealing glances at her, wondering if perhaps it was a little much. Particularly when juxtaposed against the rest of her costume: a black turtleneck sweater, a longish very straight black skirt, and clunky black lace-up boots, which my father had always referred to as "clodhoppers."
But when we got to the opening, I saw that most of the younger women in the room were wearing clodhoppers. In addition, most were dressed entirely in black. Though none was wearing a hat.
As the evening progressed, one by one people in the room approached her and said, "Where did you get that hat?"
Each time, Chris tossed her head and smiled. "My great-grandmother," she said.