Cockades, marabou and tulle, the pill-box, boater, and beret. I learned this vocabulary as a child on shopping trips with my mother to Robertson’s department store. Each Saturday morning, we would head to the bustling city of South Bend from our tiny town of Osceola, Indiana. At the time, this Midwestern manufacturing powerhouse showed no signs of its forthcoming rustbelt demise. Midcentury post-war consumerism was in high gear, Studebakers were still rolling off the assembly line, the downtown sidewalks were peopled, and the future was bright.
Our first stop was always Robertson’s, straight to the third-floor millinery department where my mother glided through the serpentine aisles the same way she frosted our Sunday layer cakes, with gentle swoops and curving loops. This rough and tumble tomboy followed obediently as if Mom held a butter-cream spoon to lick.
I shadowed her through a labyrinth of dainty dressing tables in a fantasyland of exotic and otherworldly adornment. Spotlights pin-pointed each crowning detail and all species of feathers quivered come-hither. Mom tried on these confections with measured grace, elbows high and wide with pinkies pointing skyward. She tried on hats as if each one took her to places the road of life had not.
One day she turned to me for a try. I don’t remember the hat, its color or shape, only the thrill of this delicate concoction. It was a short-lived rite of passage. Hats quickly became passé soon after I outgrew the only one I ever owned that was not made for winter warmth. My happy little Easter bonnet was well worth nearly choking from its aggressive elastic chin strap. It’s white fluffy pompom still brings a smile.
Robertson’s soon reflected the radical cultural transformation taking place in the 1960’s. The dainty dressing tables disappeared only to be replaced by blunt chrome fixtures crammed with factory fashion. Statuesque mannequins with hourglass shapes and ethereal expressions were elbowed-out by sinewy headless figures. Multi-generational department stores like Robertson’s were being gobbled up, or starved out, by a voracious business model that was ripping the flesh from the retail gentility established in the late-nineteenth century. Courtesy was cast aside and shopping became blood-sport. Mom and I didn’t shop together much during Robertson’s demise. The thrill was gone.
Our Saturday shopping trips resumed when I graduated from high school and got my first apartment. Musty thrift stores were bursting with sturdy old furniture to repaint or reupholster. Hats were the last thing on my mind. I had a nest to feather and a career to build. It was the free-wheeling 70’s and with sweeping bellbottom jeans and waist-length hair, I wouldn’t be caught dead with anything on my head.
One day my parents announced they were moving to Tennessee. Dad wanted to return to ancestral soil and Mom wanted to take her organic gardening to the next level. With 500 miles between us, our weekly shopping era was over. We vacationed here or there or somewhere in between, two or three times a year. We found antique malls reminiscent of our department store outings. We meandered through the booths of cast-offs and wanna-be treasures, where occasionally an old hat dangled among the dusty glassware and faded linens. Standing before her using the hat as a prop, I’d try it on and played the fool to make her laugh. These vintage hat performances revealed how our roles had transformed into an odd reversal. I couldn’t resist trying on those dusty crumples. She wouldn’t touch them. She giggled and warned of lice. We never tired of this silly ritual. With my vigorous 80-year-old Grandma along for the fun, I assumed Mom and I would share another forty years of this hat-play.
I was wrong.
One night I was awakened with tender foreboding to hear the words, “Mom had a stroke.” I jumped in the car and drove to the Nashville hospital where I found her surrounded by wires and tubes that tethered her to life. We were gently informed she should not have survived the event and that it would soon take her away. As I held her hand, I whispered a promise.
Mom had become painfully embarrassed by her rapid hair loss in recent months. What little remained of her beautiful widow’s peak had been shaved and her shorn scalp was marred by emergency incisions. I wanted to honor any synapse of consciousness that might remain so that she could spend her final hours in dignity as family, friends, and coworkers came to say their farewells. So, I promised her a hat.
To fulfill my pledge I dashed to Harvey’s, Mom’s favorite department store in downtown Nashville. There, among belts and socks, stood a wobbly hat tree with a meager collection of pink base-ball caps and terry-cloth visors. To outrun the encroaching grief, I sped to the antique mall where vintage hats resembled half-plucked chickens or deflated mushrooms. In a last-ditch stop at an upscale boutique I shared my quest with a kind shopkeeper. She brought out a lone contender and pointed to a collection of pins to adorn it.
A few hours later, as if she were Paris bound, my mother departed in a soft white beret with a red organdy poppy, worn just as she taught me so long ago.