And now, I have another bone to pick with hats. You see, my oldest son — he’s almost 10, and in so many ways, he’s still a child, and even though he’s getting bigger and stronger, deep down he’s still my little boy with the baby-soft skin and the stuffed animals lined up on his bed. But he grew up one day all at once, and I blame his hat.
It was a chilly November morning and he was getting ready to run a local 5k. My son came downstairs in his version of winter weather-appropriate running gear, which is another way of saying “shorts and a T-shirt.”
“You’ll need to bundle up — it’s really cold out there,” I told him, which of course is Mom Code for “You are NOT leaving the house like that!”
He went into the mudroom and put on a sweatshirt, gloves, a knit hat with tassels, and at least five years.
As he walked back into the kitchen, my jaw hung low as I searched in vain for my child who seemed to have been replaced by this much older, more confident boy with the hat on his head.
He pulled the hat down over his ears, the edges skimming chiseled cheekbones I’d never noticed, and framing eyes that held secrets no adult could unlock, even if they tried to remember.
I marveled at the newly developed muscles rippling under his skin as he laced up his shoes.
I squinted in an attempt to bring the 9-year-old back in focus, and I caught a glimpse of something I’d never seen in him — never even considered might be lurking underneath.
I watched him without words, like you watch your favorite movie, my brain attempting to binge on the vision in front of me.
My heart was racing as if I’d already gone for a run. What had I done? I wanted to rip that hat off his head, to hold him close until the little boy reappeared — the one with the chubby cheeks who wore clothes sized with the letter “T” and smelled like baby wash and maple syrup.
But what kind of mother would I be if I sent my son out in the cold without his hat?
And so he ran — that older boy with the hat — he ran really fast. So fast that he worked up a sweat and removed the offending headwear. As he peeled it off to reveal his matted, damp hair, I saw his familiar goofy grin reflected in the finisher’s medal around his neck and finally felt the earth return to its normal orbit. I exhaled for the first time in what seemed like hours and felt my breath slow right along with my little boy’s.
He was back, and even as I squinted at him in the morning sun, I couldn’t find any trace of the future man who had tried to take his place.
A few weeks ago we were at a large family gathering and when it was time for my father to go, he asked me to help him with his hat.
It was the same hat he’s had since my childhood — the big, furry, oblong kind with flaps that come down over the ears. The kind more suited to winter in Siberia than suburban Detroit. I picked it up and took it over to him, and bent over his wheelchair so I could put it on his head.
As I held the hat in my hands, its soft, downy fur tickled my hands, melted my heart, and transported me three decades back. That hat smelled like Old Spice and Brylcreem, like winter mornings of my youth, when my dad, freshly showered and shaved, firmly pulled his rubber shoe protectors over his polished Rockports and placed his hat on his slicked-back hair before heading to work.
I looked at him and saw my 8-year-old self reflected back in his thick bifocals. I squinted and tried to bring the memory more sharply into focus, but before I could grab it, before I could dive back in time, it was gone.
I wanted to rip the hat off his head, to hold it close and keep it all to myself. But what kind of daughter would I be if I sent my dad out in the cold without his hat?
I focused all my attention on him as my son helped push the wheelchair out, the way you focus on the last few chapters of your favorite book, not wanting to miss a single word before the beautiful story concludes.
When it was time for us to leave I gathered up the kids, their shoes, coats and other assorted winter gear.
“Put your hats and mittens on — it’s really cold out,” I warned them.
“I didn’t bring a hat, Mom,” my oldest confessed.
“It’s OK, my love,” I told him as I bent down to kiss him, burying my face in his hair so he wouldn’t see the relief in my eyes.
I put one hand on the top of his head — partly to guide him, and partly to steady myself — and together we headed out to brave the cold.