Friday, December 23, 2005


In Which Hats are Like Comets...

So, funny thing about that hat my mom made me. Despite my little moment with Papa up there on the hill, I managed to doff that damn hat when I got home and keep it well doffed for most of the rest of my childhood. I hid it in the bottom of a dresser drawer and more or less forgot about it.

What can I say? I was a kid and life lessons didn't exactly make craters in my mind back then. Instead, they sort of bounced off the atmosphere and went spinning away into the nothing.

At least most of them did.

As I got older, some of those life lessons did make impacts, some shallow, some deep. Some become satellites of their own, in constant orbit around my life.

Others, like the hat, evidently became comets.

Right, so here's what happened. It was after Thanksgiving but before Christmas, about 12 years ago. Her Lovely Self and I, due to be married in about 5 months, were both working in the Washington, D.C. area. I was so grateful to be "back east" and so close to New England (well, close compared to Chicago, where I had been for the previous three years) that I was besotted with the idea of going there whenever we had the chance. We drove up for fall foliage. We drove visited a family friend's farm to drink real cider from a real hand-cranked cider press. And now we had come to another season I was looking forward to, at least at that age:

Christmas shopping.

You can't be a child of New England and not be affected by the idea of outlet shopping. Kittery, North Conway, and one or two other places I'm surely forgetting. Of course, the Mecca of all of these places was Freeport, Maine, home of the L.L. Bean flagship store. I know most people--especially most people from New England--have varying opinions about such a pretty little town becoming such a monument to consumerism. All I know is, when I was a kid, it seemed more like a town than a shopping mall with sidewalks and street lights. As a kid, I had met old people who knew and worked for the original L.L., who used to sit outside his office window whenever L.L. was on the phone with his stockbroker. L.L. was a bit hard of hearing evidently, and his voice carried.

When I was a boy, the only times I was allowed to be awake past my bed time were on July 4th, when certain people held certain late-night fireworks displays, and whenever we made our fall pilgrimage up to Bean's. My father always enjoyed driving there at night, not only because there was so little traffic, but also because it helped him avoid the tourist/shoppers who had even then begun to clog Freeport and the flagship store. Since Bean's was--and still is--open 24 hours a day, we preferred to do our shopping in the middle of the night. Wandering around Bean's at 1 or 2 in the morning is a surreal experience, and not necessarily for everyone. But I enjoyed it. Still do.

I didn't think we'd have the option of making a late-night run to Bean's this one weekend in 1993. But I thought we could make a sort-of day-trip of it. The plan was to leave Washington right after work Friday night and make it as far as the Pennsylvania/New York border, where friends who were just as crazy as we were lived. We would sleep on their futon for a few hours, then get up around 4 or 5 and drive the rest of the way up to Bean's.

The plan worked to sheer perfection. The weather had been chilly but beautifully clear, as predicted, and we found ourselves in Freeport late Saturday morning. The parking lots were not yet filled up, only the local diners were. We had ourselves a bit of lunch and then shopped like nobody's business. HLS and I got some exceedingly durable luggage for our honeymoon at Bean's (we still have every piece to this day, all in perfect working order). Her Lovely Self bought me a pair of moccasin style slippers there as a Christmas present.

(When the rawhide lacing snapped two or three years later, I sent the slipper back to Bean's, wondering if they still did shoe repairs (every man on my dad's side of the family owns a pair of Bean hunting boots that has been affordably resoled at least once). Two weeks later, Bean's sent me back a box containing a brand-new pair of slippers, plus a gift-card to make up for my postage and my "inconvenience." I am wearing those slippers right now, and will always consider myself a lifelong patron. Something I made the mistake of telling one of their PR people once I became a magazine editor. She knows my journalistic impartiality is uncertain where Bean's is concerned.)

It was not yet four but it was getting dark and we all agreed we'd better start heading back, as we'd have a marathon drive through the night if were to make it back to our friends' house.

As we were dragging ourselves back to the car, I watched the darkening sky and made an off-hand remark, "Smells like snow." My fiancée smiled at this and made fun of me for overplaying my New England rusticity. "You can't smell snow!" she said.

As we walked, we were passing a bench where an old man--I think he may even have been an actual, card-carrying codger--sat, one leg stretched stiffly out before him. He looked a bit like my Dad and so I took him--correctly--for a lifelong New Englander.

"Sir!" I called to him. "Smell like snow to you?" I asked.

I've never known an old man--especially a New Englander--not to be stirred to life by talk of the weather.

"Ayuh," he nodded. "It surely does." He pointed to his leg. "That, an' my kneebone, she bin a' bitchin' and moanin' all day. Them fools on the radio ain't callin' for more than a flurry or two." We nodded. We had heard a similar report: isolated flurries--all too common that time of year--but with no accumulation.

The codger looked at me. "She's comin' and you can bank on it. I seen a ring around the moon last night around 6 or 7, tweren't but yea long," and he held up his thumb to indicate the width of the ring.

"Thank you," I said. "I think we'd better get going."

The old man nodded. "I would. If I didn't already live here." And he cackled at his own humor as we strode--rather more briskly than before--to the car.

Along the way, I explained to my friends the weather principle that I'm sure some of you have heard: that you can predict how soon it will snow by how many rings you see around the moon at night, and by how close they are to the moon. I'm sure someone somewhere has done careful study, but I was always given to understand that each ring meant roughly 24 hours before the snow. So if you saw two rings, it would snow in two days. Later I heard that you could gauge how much snow you might get by how close the ring was to the moon.

Of course, it's hogwash and folklore. And yet I spent two hours on a phone once with a university meteorologist who believed that the rings and their proximity to the moon were all a result of moisture in the air, moisture or a certain temperature and density that was usually associated with impending snowfall. So who knows?

All I can tell you is the old man believed it, a lot of men in my family believed it.

And so did my friends, when snow started to fall--fast--about three hours later.

By this time, we were just crossing into New Hampshire and now all the weather stations that had been calling for light snow were calling for flurries with accumulation. At least we were headed in the right direction--still no call for snow in New York or points south. But it was coming down in those small little flakes that mean business, that promise accumulation and icy roads and we all began to talk about perhaps finding a motel for the night.

As the discussion turned to how far we could get down I-95 before we had to stop, I saw the exit for Route 4 near Portmouth and without consulting anybody, I took it.

When we stopped to get gas, I showed my friend the map. If we took Route 4 West, we were only about six thumbs away. The salt trucks had already been through the route once and there was hardly any traffic. Everyone excitedly agreed; I don't think it quite occurred to anyone how close we actually were.

So I went to the back of the gas station and dialed a familiar number on the payphone.

Dad picked up on the second ring. "Well, there he is! Tried to call you earlier but you wasn't home. Out enjoying the weather I guess!" he cried. "Must be nice to be in the south. They're calling for a real Nor'easter up here now. What you bin up to today?"

"Oh, nothing much," I said, which was true. Then my mom jumped on the extension and dominated the conversation with wedding-plan questions.

My mom will talk all night if you let her and the snow was only falling more heavily. "Listen, I can't talk long. We've been Christmas shopping all day and we haven't had dinner yet."

"Oh, don't let me keep you," my mom said. "Are you staying in or going out?"

"Going out," I said, then paused a beat.

"In fact, we'll be there in about an hour."

My folks are very hard to surprise but when I do manage to spring one on them, their reaction is wonderful. There's always a wonderful commotion and this time was no different. Above the shouts of "Get the extension for the table" and "check the pantry to make sure I have enough sauce!" I explained our crazy day trip and my father became serious. After all, it was Weather we were discussing, and Weather was his religion.

"You bettah get going, then," he said. "They just salted 89 and 4 so you should be fine. Just be goddamn careful. Worse comes to worse, we can always come out in the Jimmy and getcha."

But although the snow really WAS coming down now, the state highway we were on was relatively clear (ironic, compared to the news of accidents we were already hearing about up and down I-95). At one point, we followed a plow all the way to Concord. From there, it was a slower and more slippery drive, but we made it to my parents' house in a little over an hour. Every light was on and the house blazed through the storm with all the brightness and beauty of an unexpected safe port.

Of course, Her Lovely Self and I had just seen my folks at Thanksgiving. But for our other friends--one of whom I went to high school with, the other a college pal--it had been a few years since they'd seen each other. So much fuss was made over the surprise guests, and in moments, were seated at the old dining room table, coats and shoes already off of us and drying by the fire. In the hour since we called, my mom had produced a late supper of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and an assortment of vegetables from the recent stock of preserves. It was, as my people like to say, one hell of a feed.

As we sat around the table, slowly distending and calculating how much pie we could reasonably eat, we could hear the wind picking up fiercely. Already, my small car had been almost fully covered by a drift. There was no question where we were staying for the night. One of the last times I had slept in this house, it had been in a makeshift room shielded from the elements by Tyvek, mostly. But that was three years before. My dad had long since finished the upstairs: two bedrooms, a bathroom, the works.

Since my friends were already married, they got the guest room with the double bed. Her Lovely Self and I got my old room, transplanted whole and breathing to the house. It was furnished with the old bunk beds my brother and I had shared, the matching dressers, the old desk where I used to sit up and type my stories. In the corner, there were even a few foot lockers full of old comics.

"Oh, is that your whole collection?" Her Lovely Self asked. "You made it sound like it was a lot bigger. You're such an exaggerator."

I just smiled and nodded shyly.

My friends and my future bride were asleep in minutes, but not me. I was too excited to be home--to be safe and snug and warm at home in the middle of the first big winter storm of the year. It was a gift, I realized. And I needed to honor that gift somehow.

So I sat down at my old desk and started writing about it, trying to convey the way the storm sounded, felt like a living thing; trying to capture my sense of snugness against the cold; and of my own excitement as conveyed through my Dad, who was downstairs, going from window to window to watch the snow, and talking to the cats as he went, something he always did when he was excited.

Tomorrow was Sunday--not much time to get our friends home and get ourselves back to Washington. But if we got up early enough, I thought we might have time for a quick jaunt up the hill. I knew my friends well enough to know they'd be game for it. One of my friends was a professional photographer and thought my dad had one of those craggy faces that deserved photographing.

And so at around 7 the next morning, not long after an unexpectedly bright sun woke us, while my friends and fiancée ate hugely from the breakfast casserole and pancakes my mom had made, I broached the idea of hunting up a Christmas tree with my dad. The rest is history.

One problem, of course, was that we had made our shopping trip in shoes and light jackets, definitely not winter gear suitable for clambering up knee-deep snow on the hill. I needn't have worried. In moments, my mom produced an old steamer trunk full of winter clothes. We managed to find enough boots for everyone, then we just began trying on jackets and hats to see what fit. My mom had her hand behind her back and a meaningful look on her face. "I found your hat right here," she said with a sly smile.

And so she had.


Then she had to tell the story of how I hated the hat, which my friends and future wife enjoyed. But by this time, I remembered what my grandfather had said about the hat and realized I didn't hate it anymore. Just the opposite. The life lesson that had bounced off me as a little kid was indeed a little comet of wisdom (tail and all!) making a return trip through my life and this time I wasn't going to let it go. I surprised my mom by keeping it on my head when our adventure was done. I drove back home with it, and here it remains.

I brought it out last night for the picture I posted and this morning found the kids arguing over who would get to wear it.

"You really like that hat?" I asked them.

"I love it!" the Brownie yelled. "And I look prettiest in it!" she added, as though that settled it.

"It's really cool," said Thomas, looking at the patterns. "Where'd you get it?"

"Funny you should ask," I said. And then I told them a couple of stories.

One, you just read this week.

The other is one I wrote and posted last Christmas, when this place was less a blog and more a message board purely for Sharfa's entertainment .

If you haven't read that story yet, this is the season to. You'll find it now if you'll kindly click below on one of my most favorite photos in all the world.


As told, this story exists in only two places: here on the blog.

And here, on this rolled up piece of paper.


Which is hidden in this window frame.


Which made a nice place to display smaller versions of the pictures that make up the story I know as "Family Tree."

That frame hangs in my living room, and one day it will be an heirloom to my family.

The hat hangs in the coat closet in the front hall.

And in its way, I guess it already is.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

And I've been hooked ever since....

Love that picture frame!

At least now we get to see pictures of you too! You used to be so shy.

I hope something sinks into my kids head, it will make all these lumps (from beating it against the wall) on mine worth it.
Wow! isn't it wonderful how family becomes so much more important to us as we get older? I'm having a hard time right now, missing mine terribly on my first Christmas away from them ever. You are very blessed!

Merry Christmas

Thanks for the abundance of good Christmas/Winter/Family tales. As always, good stuff. Merry Christmas!
I have to say your New England stories are my favorites. Having come from that area I can say that you really evoke a feeling for what the people and places there are really like. Thanks for sharing your family stories with us again.
Lurve your family stories. =D

PS - was just about to get some shearling slippers online, and when you wrote that thing about LL Bean, i immediately got them there instead. i've had about enough of bad customer service, not taking anymore risks!
merry christmas old man.
I still feel vaguely guilty sometimes when I think about a shirt my grandma bought me when I was in junior high. I'd complimented her on hers and she went out and bought me an identical one...which I never wore. I still have it in my dresser drawer, though. And it makes me smile when I see it.

In any case, thanks for the nostalgic holiday story, and enjoy your Christmas with HLS, Thomas and the Brownie!
Merry Christmas to everybody at the magazine mansion!

Thanks for all the great stories.
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