Lately I’ve noticed my grandpa following me on my walks. I see him lurking in gardens and near trees in my neighborhood. He likes to show himself just as I’m walking out of the halo cast by street lights.
And then I remember I’m wearing my Grandpa hat.
Two summers ago, during the fever dream that was the beginning of the pandemic, I stumbled into a real brick-and-mortar haberdasher in Traverse City, Michigan, and couldn’t resist the chance to reinvent myself. At first, I only considered buying familiar types of hats: baseball caps and beanies.
Those types of hats are for fuddy-duddies, I thought, looking at an aisle of fedoras, homburgs, and pork pies. Well, 47 isn’t exactly young.
A half hour later, a taller hat, dark gray, wool, with a short brim that flipped up in the back caught my eye. A trilby hat. It was more slick somehow than a common fedora, which sits low and has a thicker brim comparatively. I liked the cut of its jib. After buying it and bringing it home, it sat at the top of my closet for a year until one night early last month. I wouldn’t say it was raining exactly; it was somewhere between a mist and a spray. I needed something to keep my hair dry and the rain out of my eyes. Then I remembered the trilby.
I take walks right after work, and it gets dark in Chicago by 4:30 pm in December so the streetlights were shining bright that night. I passed under one and my shadow stretched out across my neighbors’ yards. The shape of my hat on top of my shadow comforted me. But I didn’t know why.
After a few more walks, I realized the hat topping my shadow reminded me of my grandpa, Nelson Harburn. We have similar body types, though I’m a bit taller. According to my cousins, I even look like him. But that’s not why I was comforted.
The thing is Grandpa H passed away when I was four. I have memories of him wearing hats at church, but can I trust them? I don’t actually know if he wore hats, let alone the trilby I am associating with him. But on that walk his memory came to me immediately. You know? I hadn’t thought of him in weeks and then I see my shadow and a warmth spread through my body.
Maybe my association of the hat to him is the kind of fused-together memory that happens when impressions of people are based on photographs. Like, I saw so many photos of my grandpa wearing trilbies that it was easy for my memory to plop them onto his head.
Or maybe, as the photo suggests, he didn’t wear hats at all. Maybe trilbies remind me of him because they are a symbol of his generation. As one of the few family members I’ve actually met, he is a foundation of all who came before him for me. Maybe I just needed to attribute something to him, and why not a hat? He was born in 1901, and the trilby was a popular hat for men of his age to wear during the 1960s and 70s. If my memory is correct, the photos I would have used to build my memories of him would have been taken in the 60s and 70s. It makes a sort of sense.
In any case, it was nice to feel him with me on that cold night in this isolating time. I keep wearing the hat on my walks, wind permitting, as an invitation for him to join me. As long as it sparks my memory, I suppose it doesn’t matter much if he wore one.