Farewell to a hat

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My grandfather loved hats. He had an entire room full of them, a bedroom at the end of the farmhouse hall converted into a storage den. They lined the walls on wooden pegs, a comically hideous assortment of farmer hats, novelty caps and one that was basically a stuffed moose in hat-form.

It’s one of the few things I distinctly remember about my grandfather. Like most men in the Rath family, he wasn’t exactly the most emotionally forthcoming character, and he suffered a stroke that left him immobilized and unable to communicate clearly when I was still young. But I do remember the playful teasing – all Rath men tend to have a devilish prankster quality to them – and his stuffed animals lining the walls. And the hats.

In 2007, several years after he passed away, my grandmother joined him in whatever exists in the great beyond, leaving the farmhouse vacant for the first time in generations. My mom and her sisters took up the task of sorting through the house to divvy up all the odds and ends, from furniture to cherished family heirlooms. There were a bunch of items that were left to my brother and I, most of which our mother kept for safekeeping.

She also brought back an item that hadn’t been left to anyone, but for some reason she thought I might enjoy. It was a brown fedora.


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In contrast to my grandfather, hats weren’t really my thing. When I was in elementary school, I needed to own the baseball caps of my favourite sports teams just like all the other kids, but by the time I got to junior high I had outgrown the trend. If anything, hats are decidedly uncool in high school and beyond.

And yet, as I picked up the fedora and tried it on for the first time, there was something about it that made me want to give it a shot. Maybe it’s that it made me look a bit older, a sign that I was still wrestling with having spent my teenage/post-teenage years looking a good 6-8 years too young. Or perhaps it my occasional craving for fashion oddity popping up again, which has been responsible for everything from a horrific pair of yellow sunglasses to those weeks in third-year university where I wore ties on a near-daily basis (with shirts that should NOT have been sporting ties).

One reason why the hat was a bit odd was that it was clearly old, but at the time none of us really knew how old. Since then, we’ve discovered photos of it dating back to the late 1960s. Some people who’ve taken a look at it guesstimate that it may have been even older, perhaps even into the 30s or 40s. This might explain why the leather band inside had a few small cracks in it, why the ribbon on the outside was a wee bit stained, and why the feather originally lodged on the outside had pretty much fallen apart.

It also really didn’t fit that well. My grandfather had a fairly large head, and I eventually got in the habit of only wearing the hat when my hair had reached the proper level of shagginess. If I got a haircut, it meant that I couldn’t really pull off the fedora for a good two or three weeks, lest I be concerned about it blowing off in the Halifax breeze.

A well-worn, ill-fitting hat…not exactly the kind of thing I would walk into a store and buy. I’ll confess that at the time, I really didn’t know whether I had found something worth holding onto, or something that was just going to take up space in my closet.

Until I wore it, that is.

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Here’s the thing: I never wanted to be “hat guy.” The idea of being defined by a piece of clothing is kind of scary to me, given that I run a pretty understated closet (previously-mentioned sporadic craving for oddity aside). I do more than enough talking; I don’t need my wardrobe screaming overtop of me. As such, I’m more than content to stick to the basics, happily shaded with my beloved blues, browns, greens and blacks. So even when my hat started to get popular, I made myself promise that I would only reserve it for special occasions.

That didn’t last long.

What can I say? I got hooked on the hat. It got noticed. It got compliments. It gave me some weird sense of confidence, burying a whole ton of insecurities under the brim. Hell, it was almost cool. To a geeky dork with an overreliance on sarcasm and irony, the idea of even touching coolness was a strange and foreign concept, even if it was based in a sense of classical weirdness.

It was also a hit with women – far moreso than its wearer. There was more than one time that a girl who hadn’t even introduced herself would take the hat right off my head and try it on. At first I was kind of jealous of the attention it was getting in lieu of me, but when you realize that a girl in a fedora is maybe the hottest thing ever, you kind of just go along with it and count your blessings.

So clearly, in the here and now, the hat was a hit. But every time someone asked me about it, the first thing out of my mouth was that it was my grandfather’s. I couldn’t wait to tell people that it was old, and not just because it gave it some kind of silly vintage cred. Here, in one hat, was a link to a family history that I was only now, after my grandparents’ passing, beginning to know and appreciate.

Above all else, though, my hat became my favourite concert companion. In the past two years, the hat been with me to see Bruce Springsteen, the White Stripes (their 10th anniversary show, no less), Neil Young, Death Cab for Cutie, and countless bar bands around Halifax. Given that, it’s only fitting that its final days were spent shielding me from the sun at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in California, with the likes of Paul McCartney, Morrissey, My Bloody Valentine and more.

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You could say, given such a whirlwind weekend, that my beloved hat went out in a blaze of glory. And yet it wasn’t through some epic struggle against the elements that it left me; it was all my own stupidity.

The hat almost certainly made it on my flight from Los Angeles to Toronto, a trip that was delayed for 45 minutes on the tarmac. My brother and I were going to be razor-close in making our connection, so we rushed through the airport to customs and then waited impatiently for our baggage to take to our next flight. When we reached the Air Canada desk and were informed that we didn’t make it, I reached up to scratch my head. To my horror, I found only hair. I still don’t know whether I left the hat on the plane or whether it fell off running through the airport. Regardless, neither the airline nor the airport Lost and Found has had anything turned in.

I’m not good when I lose things. No matter how large or how small the item is, I become overwhelmed with anger and self-loathing over the idea that I’m stupid enough to misplace my stuff. But I don’t think I’ve ever lost something that’s left me so sad and disappointed in myself. As I sat in the airport bar watching the end of the hockey game that night, all I kept thinking about was something that a friendly stranger in the Bruce Springsteen lineup had told me after inspecting the fedora and being impressed by its vintage. “You take care of that hat,” he mumbled. “It’s a keeper.”

“It’s a keeper.”

It’s been over a week since it went missing. I’ve completed my five stages of grief and ending up contentedly at “acceptance,” but I’m no less disappointed with myself. Before the fedora came surprisingly into my life, I never would have suspected an article of clothing could mean anything to me at all, believing them all more or less expendable. Now, I struggle with having lost something truly irreplaceable – a family heirloom in which I had placed more of my identity than I care to admit.

Maybe the hat was never meant to be mine for good; maybe it was just on loan for a while, meant to inspire and then retire accordingly. Maybe it will always be more his than it was mine. So it goes.

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5 responses to “Farewell to a hat

  1. A fitting tribute Ryan. Just remember that you enabled Grampie’s hat to experience things that it never would have stuck in a closet. It was meant to be worn and loved and you made that possible. Grampie and Grammie would be pleased you loved that hat so much.

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