It was the Club’s annual ‘Hat and Gloves Day,’ and Bryan Place looked lovely. The sun shone benignly; riotous flowers were blooming, and the grass surrounding the aged brick patio was a lush and perfect Crayola green.
Inside, tables wore crisp white linens, and the vivid club members provided a cheerful, dynamic counterpart. Women chatted together, smiled, parted, moved on to greet another,–women in pastels and navy blues and gem tones; women with straw boaters, variations of cloches, fancy brimmed numbers, little demi hats with flowers and veils, on their heads. There was netting; there was tulle.
When Anna Marie, the president, called us to order, we wended to our seats and removed our gloves. Some gloves were lacy and fingerless, some traditionally white, some velvety, some bedazzled. No matter: they were all slipped off for lunch.
And lunch was light and fresh and lovely: quiche, fresh fruit, a crisp salad, iced tea. Historic re-enactors provided the program. Dressed as Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, the couple made 1860’s “Washington City,” with its murk, its intrigue, and its heartbreak, alive and real. Mrs. Lincoln even talked about her hat–and about the fact that real ladies never, never, leave the backs of their necks exposed.
Anna Marie passed the gavel to Susan; next year’s officers were installed. And then, after we each chose one of three kinds of cake to enjoy for dessert, after the coffee cups emptied, and after the conversation ran low, it was time to leave.
I walked out with Chris Drake, who wore a wonderful straw hat adorned with a big black grosgrain ribbon; it was perky and cute, and it suited her perfectly.
“I like your hat,” Chris told me, and I beamed as I thanked her.
I am damned near sixty years old, and I’ve finally–finally!–figured out how to keep a hat on my over-sized head.
During a childhood in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s—a VCG*—I wore hats. I liked wearing hats, in fact.
The problem was my head, which was–and is–very big. I mean, very big, and this is not a direct reference to ego; we’re talking circumference here.
I believe the issue is hereditary. I have a beloved Uncle Bill, now deceased, whose head-size earned him the nickname of ‘Blockhead.’ When he retired from his job with the electric company, his coworkers found a block of wood, and a talented, witty person painted my uncle’s face on it. That block looked just like Uncle Bill, corners and all.
I have a cousin, Doug, who is my Uncle Bill’s oldest child. Doug also has a rather large head.
Uncle Bill’s witty friends called Doug “Chip”–as in ‘Chip off the ol’ Blockhead.’
THAT is the kind of head I inherited. And just to exacerbate things I have a lot of hair. Really. A lot of hair. (I can’t tell you how many times hairdressers have said that to me accusingly: “Well. You have a LOT of hair, don’t you?” as if I grew extra on purpose, just the day before, to get full value from my haircutting fee.)
I didn’t realize I had a big head problem until about 1961, when I made my First Communion and had to wear one of those veils that is stuck to a sort of plastic comb-y headband. It was a momentous occasion, requiring a special white dress and white gloves and a little white plastic purse (My first purse! Oh, how I loved it!) that held a white rosary in a clear plastic envelope and a white-covered Children’s Missalette with gold-stamped printing.
My hair, on the big morning, was squeaky clean and slippery, and my mother pushed the headband firmly down over it. I looked in the mirror and prayerfully folded my hands, trying to be both downcast of eye and appraising of self at the very same time.
I looked, I thought, very holy, very worthy…a pale imitation, but an imitation nonetheless, of those sainted virgins (whatever ‘virgin’ meant) we were always studying. As I stood solemnly before the mirror, awash in the sacredity of the occasion, I felt an ominous slithering on my scalp. The head band, stretched beyond its capacity, popped right off my shiny clean head.
My mother uttered some religious incantation (I distinctly remember her saying, “God…[something!]”) and ran to get some bobby pins. She shoved the holy headband back on my noggin and attacked it with the pins. I felt obliquely impaled.
“Will that stay?” she asked.
I nodded, and the headband popped promptly off my big shiny head. Hair pins flew.
We worked out a plan. I was to move my head as little as possible (“Who’s the little girl with the whiplash?” I imagine some of the congregation asked each other, concerned, as I marched, stiff necked, by their pew.) And if I felt the slithering begin, I was to preemptively smack that headband down in place.
My solemn memory of First Communion is punctuated with the sense-memory of little plastic comb teeth biting into my six year old scalp to the tune of Latin chanting, as I slapped my veil back down. I did make it up to the altar and through the receiving of the Host with no tonsorial wardrobe malfunctions, but I think that was because even a plastic headband quailed beneath the stern, scary glare of Sister Mary Felix.
After First Communion, my mother informed me that I could not again wear headbands–at least not the plastic kind. But I learned to knit just around that time, and one of the first projects we tackled was knitting a headband. Ten stitches; size eight needles. My friends were all working on their third or fourth snazzy little number as I finished up my first attempt. Not that I was a slow knitter–oh, no. It was just that I needed a much longer headband.
I had such a lot of head to band.
The nuns informed us that headbands did NOT qualify as hats; and so we had to have hats in church. And, for the most part, we went to church every day before school. Fortunately, we could wear chapel veils–little round circles of lace that we bobby pinned to our hair,– or mantillas. Mantillas were big triangles of lace that lay on our heads like babushkas, except that one never tied the ends. No, the ends dangled enticingly on either side of our chins, the sides of the triangle shading our full-cheeked faces mysteriously. In our mantillas I was sure we were transformed, that we looked just like tragically beautiful saintly Spanish women named Dolores or Marisol–women with worlds of knowledge and sadness in their luminous eyes.
Because they were unfitted, both the chapel veil and mantilla options worked for me. On days we forgot one or the other, the nuns pinned a kleenex to our ignominious heads.
In the winter, I wore my brothers’ stretched out stocking caps, although I longed for a knit beret…They looked so jaunty and nice! I tried my friend Peggy’s; just like the communion veil, the beret settled right down to where it should be and then shlooped poppingly off my head.
Easter in the early sixties demanded REAL hats, and Mom, after some desperate searching, finally found a style that sort of worked for me–something kind of like a flattened canoe with fake flowers and a stiff tulle-y demi veil. That sat on top of my head, and my mother used a whole pack of thirty two bobby pins to attach it firmly. The pins lasted just about as long as Easter Mass did, which was a pretty good run. I walked up to Communion trailing bobby pins; I didn’t lose the last one till Mass was over and the hat could come off, anyway.
And then life plowed on and the Swinging Sixties opened up and morphed into the Seventies, and people didn’t wear hats or gloves–or girdles, or seamed stockings, or housedresses, for that matter,–at all any more. Some trendy people wore stylish hats, but those were mostly floppy and unshaped. I got by through my early teen years just wearing my hair long and straight and flowing. My hair was so thick I never wore winter hats; my mane kept my ears warm no matter how cold it was outside.
At high school graduation, other kids had cute things (“Thanks, Mom!” “Time to soar!”) taped on top of their mortar boards. I didn’t bother. Mine (the regalia-measuring guy informed me gleefully that I had the biggest head in the whole senior class) slipped off halfway through the ceremony in a tinkly fountain of bobby pins. I left it in my lap, just slapping it on my head long enough to march up the steps and grab the empty ornate folder that passed for a diploma. (The diploma itself would arrive in the mail later that week.)
I skipped my college graduations, but I couldn’t skip friends’ weddings, especially when they asked me to be a bridesmaid. I walked smilingly down the aisle several times on some nice guy’s arm, with a hat sitting on top of my big head, a hat that perched, as my mother pointed out, like a peanut on a bowling ball.
Those days, I did a little modeling, too, of bridal gowns, for Debra Dawn’s mother, who owned Dee’s Bridal Shop. At first, Dee thought she could address the hat issue; she plopped a fancy hat on my head and speedily circled me, spitting bobby pins into her fingers and rapidly tacking them onto my head. Full-circle, she inspected me, and, satisfied, had me whirl around.
Off flew the hat and dozens of bobby pins.
“Tell you what,” Dee said, after a pause. “Just don’t move your head.”
I walked carefully down the runaway, smiling stiffly, head frozen, hat precariously attached, modeling what the well-dressed whiplashed bride should wear.
I gave up. I bought coats with hoods when I had short hair, and, tiring of hoods, I grew out my hair again and again. For over twenty years, I bet, a regular hat-type hat never touched my head.
And then I arrived at a place, professionally, where I had to robe and walk with the faculty on commencement day. The first time, I just went without the mortar board. The President frowned, though, and my mentor pulled me aside after the ceremony and said I’d better figure out a way to keep the flat-top on my head.
Yeah, yeah, I agreed.
Like Scarlett, I’d worry about that next year.
But the next year did roll around, and in anticipation, I started bemoaning my big-headed fate, and a colleague of mine said, “I have the same problem.”
I looked at her in astonishment, and I realized, “Ye gods. Another woman with a head as big as mine.”
“What do you do?” I asked her, and she told me her secret methods, which involve the industrial strength bobby pins–the kind we used to use so we could sleep on those enormous plastic rollers,–combined with super-sized clippy things, like the things girls used way back when to create spit curls.
“I put about eight of each all over my head,” she said.
“And it works?”
I went down to Walgreens and bought a bunch of big bobbies and spit curl clips.
And, hallelujah, she’s right. With enough of those firm gripping items attached, I can make just about any hat stay on my head. Granted, I may look as though I have metal hair plugs, but I can nod and even shake my head, and the hat, like a really good veteran bronco rider, weaves just a little, but stays on.
Of course, in the years that followed that revelation, I moved from the faculty to my current position, and I no longer, now that I know how to keep it intact, have to wear my mortarboard. But some time ago, my dear friend Sharoon sent me a wonderful clunky package in the mail. I opened it to find a pink and black hatbox. The cover was stamped, in fact, ‘The Hatbox.’ That was a store in the city where Sharoon and I grew up.
Inside nestled two hats–one was a pillbox type covered with black and white flowers and topped with a gauzy black veil. The other was a cute brown straw boater with a big bow.
I lifted them out with awe and wonder. They took me right back to the early 1960’s, to those days when hats were expected and required. And they took me right past all those years of hat woes, to this point: I can make these pretty things STAY ON MY HEAD!
So it’s lovely to be a member of a club that has a hat and glove day, to sit for a whole lunch with a hat on my head, to be able to look at my lunch companions on either side, to incline my head,–even, at times, to bob with laughter. And to know: my hat is intact.
Who says you can’t teach an old head new tricks? After a lifetime of slippage, my hats stay on. How I wish my mother could see me now.
*Very Catholic Girlhood