My grandmother had a sewing shop in her home where a front porch used to be. When I visited her, we would chat while she worked, making clothes for people all over Illinois. She hand-sewed all zippers with tiny, even stitches, patiently ripping out her work if she made a mistake. Her attention to craft, while still listening patiently to the babblings of a little girl, influenced me in ways I cannot begin to measure.
I would often take spare fabric and thread and play with it. One day I chose a white satin with matching thread, and I made myself a little hat. When I put it on I felt elegant, chic, and pretty. I’m sure it was a mess, but Grandma never criticized my childish efforts. She understood that I was experimenting, defining myself in a form of dress-up.
We went out on an errand that evening, and of course, I wore my hat, grinning with pride as we walked up and down aisles. Then we met with one of my aunts, who took one look at my lovely self with its perfect little hat — and started laughing.
In an instant, my sense of glamour was shattered. I saw the hat as it truly was, amateurish and poorly made.
Fast-forward about 40 years. My husband has written a play, “Shelter in Place,” about life in the sandwich generation. We have come to refer to it often as we struggle to redefine ourselves in our fifties. We look at all the things we do “because we’ve always done them,” and are breaking out of our self-imposed, limiting boxes. Where do we want to live? Why are we going to synagogue services when we’re not religious? What if we show our children how to live their dreams by living our own?
I guess I’m saying that I’ve been pretty good at this reinvention stuff, but the other night I got caught off-guard.
It was a simple thing, really. It was just a hat. I seldom wear them, and when I do, they tend to be baseball caps to keep the sun off my nose when I walk. But I saw the cutest little hat in a boutique on 13th Street, not far from Union Square. It reminded me of Barbra Streisand in her What’s Up, Doc? days. Here’s a photo of the hat. My hair is longer these days, so I thought, why not put it on? I did, and for a moment I felt like Barbra. Well, I have no idea how it feels to be Barbra, but you know what I mean. I felt creative, alive, beautiful. For a moment I looked on the outside like I feel on the inside — funky, fun, and artistic.
I should explain that I am a practical woman. From childhood, I felt uncomfortable about frilly and unnecessary things to wear, opting instead for what I needed. The result is that my dress is simple and plain, using combinations that mix and match. Why buy a hat? What on earth would I need it for?
And yet I did. Something in my soul said, you look more like you in this hat. I showed it to my husband. “Well, that’s different,” he said. I showed it to my stepdaughter. “Well, that’s different,” she said.
I was crushed yet again. Somehow no one saw what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Then I did something really stupid. I put the hat back. I stayed in my little practical box, the box without frills, the plain box, the box that doesn’t draw attention to itself.
I cried about that stupid hat this morning. I cried for all the times I put aside pieces of myself because I perceived disapproval. I cried for not understanding that I’m worth spending $24 to feel like Barbra Streisand. I cried for the little girl who thought her white satin hat was ugly, when in fact it was an honest effort by someone who was learning — that the little satin hat had its own beauty in the love and joy that went into making it. I cried because I miss the grandmother who accepted me totally and thought everything I did was brilliant. I cried for all the women who, in some way or form, let someone else define them. And I cried because I’m 52 and going through menopause, and I can’t accept living in that tight little plain box anymore.
My husband, who actually did love the hat on me (he told me so this morning), said calmly, “Looks like it’s time to make a few more changes.” He understands. He’s going through this, too, and he knows that sometimes it’s more than a hat. Looks like I’m going shopping soon!