Ted and Nancy sat at the kitchen table over a dinner of home made macaroni and cheese and stewed tomatoes. Nancy remembered that this was the first meal she had made as a new bride, forty years ago. How many times had she made it, since then? And why was she making the same old menu year after year? She spent a lot of time thinking about things like this, reflecting on her past, and trying to make room for the future.
Ted operated from a more pragmatic point of view . . . if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He woke up each morning with a smile on his face and a spring in his step, eager to see what the new day held for him. He was officially retired, but took part time jobs as they suited his fancy. He volunteered reading for the blind, and worked for any golf tournament that promised to bring him up close and personal to some of his idols. His photograph shaking hands with Tiger Woods was his pride and joy. Ted took life day-by-day, with no regrets about the past, and not much planning for the future. Sometimes Nancy envied him that – his ability to just focus on the matters at hand.
Nancy was a worrier. She worried about her health, whether the old dog would die soon. She worried about her grandchildren and her pregnant daughters. She worried about her son and the stress he endured in a job he hated. She worried about Global warming, the sluggish economy and the bull headed, misguided President. She felt powerless to do anything about these things. Her grandchildren were not her children, and her children were no longer hers, either. They all had their own lives, and made their own decisions, seldom asking her for advice. Global warming and the fate of the country – heck, the world – well, she couldn’t even bare to think of that for very long.
What she could do was bring order to her mind, by bringing order to the house she called home . . . her small corner of the world. Ted saw the house as a place to hang his hat, to come to for comfort, good meals, and a chair by the fire. He knew where most of his stuff was – usually the last place he used it. The other stuff he hardly noticed - his piles of papers, old clothes and hats, buckets and bags of old golf balls. Onward and upward, he said.
The problem is Nancy couldn’t move onward and upward without getting rid of forty years of debris, and organizing what was left. All this debris was pregnant with memories, mostly of her children, and her deceased relatives. She was afraid that by clearing out the basement of match box cars, and the Easy Bake oven, her mother’s cook book collection and favorite lamp, that she would be ridding herself of the memories – those nuggets of gold, so dear to her. Making those decisions wasn’t easy and she could only dare to do it, bit by bit. Her son advised her to take pictures of those things, so she could then part with the actual objects. “They’re just things, Mom,” he reminded her.
Presently, she was preoccupied with the hundreds of books she and Ted had collected. She sold some at the used bookstore. She took others to the library for their spring book sale. She donated a box of paperbacks to the local prison farm. She was even able to get Ted to pack up and give away a box of his sports books. But whenever she brought up the subject of his hat collection, there was tension in the air, and she could feel her heart beating a little faster.
Ted collected baseball hats, golf hats, college hats – almost as many hats as he had books. His hats, however, were more sacred. He was fiercely attached to them, as though without them, he would lose his identity. But hats were much more difficult to store. They did not fit nicely, into categories on the shelf. In fact for years and years they had no home to call their own, but seemed to reproduce and float in the air like dust bunnies, landing all over the house. One day while shopping, she discovered special hangers for ball hats. She brought one home. Ted was mildly interested, like the day she surprised him with the new puppy. She organized some of his hats on the new hanger while he was out mowing the lawn. When he came back in, he didn’t like the way they looked. He maintained it wrecked his hats. Off they came.
She tried to understand why he needed so many hats. She really did. She was a teacher and used to dealing with defiant, obstinate children. She figured the same tactics of patience and genuine listening would help to clarify the situation.
It didn’t. Weeks later all efforts at wrangling in the hats had failed and once again they took over the house - hats hanging off every doorknob, hats on the end of the banister, hats on every chair back, hats on tables, hats hanging from the Shaker pegs in the kitchen, covering up her attempts at interior decorating. He explained that he needed hats for the summer, usually cotton, then contradicting himself, “but the really good Red Sox hats are wool”, he said. He needed wool hats for the winter. Lots of the hats were souvenirs of past very important events – his children’s college teams, his golf tournaments, his special – oh so special events.
On one level she understood. He was bald, after all. For years he had a comb over, bald was a blessing she had to wait many years for. Finally, his first day of retirement, he had the flap cut off; it was quite a ceremony at the barber shop, as though the world didn’t already know what was under that flap. He also reminded her over Chinese dinner one night, and a large glass of Chardonnay, that he came from a “culture of hats”. His father always wore a hat. “Men did that in those days”, he said, “You never went out of the house without a hat - a hat to church, a hat to work, always a hat. It wasn’t until JFK that it suddenly became OK not to wear a hat.”
“It’s still OK not to wear a hat”, Nancy said, fingering his Red Sox hat, which rested on the table between them.
“I like hats, damnit”, he said, loosing what little patience he had.
“You look good in hats”, she said. “ I just don’t think you need so many. Could you maybe, just get rid of a few, or put some AWAY? You know they get awfully dusty just hanging out all over the house. You’re awfully lucky the moths haven’t found them – yet.”
She saw the light come on in his eyes. Just a flicker, but she would fan it. The thought of dust and moths attacking his hats, little armies of moths, teeth bared, licking their chops at his expense, well that did it.
“When does K mart close”? he asked. “Maybe we could find some Rubbermaid containers – the king sized variety”.