A Good Hat to Wear

I was supposed to be a doctor. At least that’s what he prescribed every time he scrawled words across the tops of articles and essays cut out of The New York Times and Forbes. Words and memories are all I have left of him.

And a hat.

His pristine, straw fedora sits on top of my mantle. It watches us and leaves my heart longing for the man that sat under that soft, shadowy brim. The only relic left after family members had sifted through his stuff.

His words took no prisoners. Donning his cap, he strode boldly through the door to the sound of my grandmother’s dinner bell as if wielding a gun in a bank lobby. He demanded truth with his questions and doled out advice as easily as he emptied rounds behind the house. And yet, his intimidating demeanor was somehow softened by the shadow his hat cast across his face.

Now, my one-year-old son runs and squeals, swallowed by the brim meant for a tall man. I smile, wondering if the original owner would find this a sacrilege, considering the quality of the cap and the emphasis he placed on an impeccable outfit. Heavy starch. Creased pants. Tailored seams. Custom boots.

I wonder if he would think I’m a mess. I look around me and struggle to find order in anything – toys are strewn haphazardly, my piles of books and magazines are stacked like empty pizza boxes in a trash can that’s too small, and I haven’t even brushed my hair today. I look at the clock to find some consolation in the timing, but the day is more than halfway done.

My eyes meet my son’s, and we exchange a giggle as he continues in rambunctious play with my sacred souvenir. My lackadaisical attitude seems to encourage chaos at every corner. The playroom discloses my struggle for structure. Stuffed in square cubbies lie dolls, blocks, and trucks that beg to be sorted. My children don’t seem to notice. On the rare occasion that I do spend an hour tending and organizing, as soon as they play with their precious friends, the room looks like the disaster that it should be. I sit and drink coffee while I survey the chaos and vow to stay true to my natural tendencies instead of trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

Dinners at “The Farm” were a production, and Gramps was the producer. He always mumbled a prayer and dug into his meal before any of us could even bow our heads. His eyes never left the fine china in front of him as he stabbed his food like a fisherman going after worms for the hook. He joined the orchestral dinner music with his grunts and grumbles as he shoveled bite after bite.

“Sarah Elizabeth, what’s your five-year plan?” he said.

It was Thanksgiving, and I was only in high school, but my age and the occasion did not excuse me from interrogation. I was ready, alongside my brother and cousins, every time we sat down at his table. Instead of striving for a praiseworthy response, I was always ready to refute.

“Why would I limit myself to what I can imagine now? Why would I pretend to know what God has for me?” I said.

We sparred with words as we dined, and then continued the back-and-forth during car rides to church, while we rode horses in the pasture, even when passing in the hall. When these discussions yielded him no positive results, he mailed me letters, articles, and comic strips containing nuggets of truth meant to impart wisdom and direction. These prescriptions were meant to empower me, but they typically left me feeling misunderstood and underappreciated. It was his way or the highway, and my disagreeing words left me in a position that didn’t measure up.

After graduated, those dinners at the Farm were few, and the time we spent all together as a family looked different. Our family had hit a new season, and I was about to be in another still.

When I was in college, my grandfather came to my town for a meeting with the Forestry Association of Texas and invited me to dine at one of the nicest steakhouses in town. I arrived sporting black nails, ripped jeans, and a chip on my shoulder that rivaled his. He introduced me to his colleagues who appeared as though they had borrowed his starch.

“This is my granddaughter. She’s going to be a doctor.”

I extended my boldly-painted hand. “No, I’m going to be a writer. And a mom,” I said.

I wince now as I think of the way his eyebrows raised in surprise. At the time I was smug and certain that I had hurt his ego, but looking back I recall a flicker of pride in his eyes. Certainly not for the torn jeans he offered to replace or the black polish that reveled in rebellion, but perhaps for the spirit he sensed fueling my words.

By my last year of college, my campus had become more than just a home to me. It was a place of refuge for friends, neighbors, and sisters and would be hard to leave such rich community behind when I left for graduate school. I was following in my mother’s footsteps to become a Speech-Language Pathologist, a last-minute decision that felt almost ordained when I was accepted during my first meeting with the dean without even having applied. How could I say no?

I grabbed the mail on my way into the house I shared with my roommates and shuffled through each piece as I walked over to my desk. Among the stack was an envelope with that familiar, slanted cursive staring at me. Not again, I thought.

I tore through the envelope, ripping the carefully scripted address, and pulled the contents out of the envelope. It was an article that had been clipped from a newspaper. The title jumped out at me – “Being an SLP Made Me a Better Mom.” But my eyes moved past that and got stuck on the handwritten words across the top.

You’re going to make a great mother.

My fingers trembled, and I scanned down to read the article. My eyes kept coming back to the written directive. You’re going to make a great mother. I scoured the article looking for a “but.” I never found one. Even so, I feared that this wouldn’t be enough. Shouldn’t there be more? Shouldn’t I be more? A great mother, he had said.

I folded the paper like a mother would fold her youngest baby’s gown and placed it in my top drawer like I was forever storing away a memory for the last time, studying its details, memorizing its wrinkles and creases.

Four years later, I held my first baby. She was perfect, just like I had been, my mom assured me. One by one, family came in to ogle and gawk and cuddle and caress.

New life. It brings a sense of security when all is wrong with the world and leaves us with the possibility of all being right. And all was right that day, but there was a noticeable absence, like when your best friend isn’t at the party or like when you’ve left your lucky hat at home. The man who had held me first was not there to wrap his arms around what was now mine. Two years prior he had been whisked away, and now I sat with my husband and a new baby, neither of whom would ever know his smile.

When I brought my baby girl home from the hospital, I often glanced at the hat, tossing us a smile, nodding reassuringly. It was there as I learned how to nurse my new baby. It was there as I rocked her to sleep. It was there as I bounced and shushed her, frantically trying to soothe angry tears. I would seek its wide grin in desperation when I was all out of tricks, and its steady presence helped me adjust and settle comfortably into my new role.

It was almost like he was here—tickling my daughter’s feet, humming along as I sang, watching her bounce while I tended to the dishes in the sink.

I remember feeling particularly lost one day—when my child woke up every hour, when no song or dance would soothe, when family was gone and home-cooked meals stopped arriving in cycles at my front door. I was stooped over, rummaging through all of my old boxes and baskets. Where was it? I had hit my breaking point, and my chest was tight as I realized how much my life was about to change.

I wanted to hold that piece of paper in my hands and read those powerful words. You’re going to make a great mother. I wanted to see his commission for myself since he wasn’t here to tell me.

Instead, I reached for his hat.

With trembling fingers, I placed it on my head. It fit, reminding me of my big head and the man I got it from.

I took the hat off and ran the clean brim through my fingertips. I pictured the man who wore it and how he wanted only the best for me—how he wanted me to succeed no matter what. He had big ideas for my life’s story and spoke wisdom whenever he had the chance, hoping that it would stick with me, hoping that I would hear it and apply it.

“You’re going to make a great mother,” he had said. For the first time I longed for his wish to come true. I didn’t follow his path to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a supreme court judge, but I did become a mother. A great one. This was one of his many “hats” I would proudly wear.

Guest post and photo by Sarah Elizabeth Finch. Sarah Elizabeth is a type-B mama of two (soon to be three) who is learning how to embrace the chaos gracefully. She loves Jesus, playing "chef," and a good story. You can see more of her words and her heart at www.sarahelizabethfinch.com

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