Sunday in the Park | ParkRecord.com

Sunday in the Park

Jenny Knaak, Record guest columnist

My grandmother is notorious for her hat collection. She started wearing them in earnest around the time she turned 40, after being treated for a small melanoma on her nose. Her doctor told her that she needed to keep sunlight off her face while her skin healed, and that, really, it would be best if she wore a hat while out in the sun, ostensibly for the rest of her life.

Not one for subtleties, she promptly began wearing large, wide-brimmed hats. Then she began finding less-wide-brimmed hats, but that were fancier, more fun, or went with her new suit better. And her friends began finding hats. And her family. So just like your dad’s cousin, Martha, who loves cats and collects cats, and you always know you can find some kind of kitschy cat thing to send her for her birthday, Jean began amassing a collection of hats.

There are lace hats, veiled hats, fur hats, feather hats, hats with entire birds on them. Sombreros, berets, toms, fedoras, cloches, toques, beanies, rollers, lampshades, downbrims, porkpies and a fez or two. There are cowboy hats, Viking hats, sombreros, bonnets, tricornes (standard for Colonial soldiers and pirate captains), a few hard hats and many ballcaps. Scarlett-O’Hara hats, turn-of-the-1900s-Gibson-girl hats, flapper hats, witch hats (including one beautiful winter-white velvet number), Jackie-O-pill-box-hats, a Daisy Duck hat, Santa hats, and one brushed-silk black top hat.

There are more than 600 hats. I’m not exaggerating. There was an article in the San Mateo, Calif., newspaper a few years ago about how Jean Orr, San Carlos resident, was proud of her collection of 600 hats. Now, I know I personally sent her at least four hats since that article, so there are at least 604 hats in the collection but I would guess it’s more like 652.

Mind you, they’re not all nice. Not by a long shot. Including the one she wore to my wedding nearly 11 years ago the one she proudly told everyone "cost five dollars at a garage sale." Woven yellow plastic mesh adorned with gaudy plastic flowers. She paid about four dollars and ninety-nine cents too much for that one. But there are a lot, I mean A LOT of beautiful, interesting, fun and unusual hats.

And now they’re mine.

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Although my grandmother is still alive, she’s been moved into an assisted living facility for people suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. She is never going to return to her home. So, on the first day of 2009, my family left for the Bay Area to pack up her house. The entire process will no doubt be fodder for future columns penned by my mother. But one of the first things we did at the house was to pack up the hats.

It took hours. And as my brother, my husband, my mother, my aunt, my cousin, and even the realtor all began taking hat boxes and moving boxes and finally plastic bags of hats down to the lawn, the pile went from amusing to daunting to overwhelming.

Seriously, what am I going to do with 600+ hats? I realize this distinctly falls into the Not-Your-Problem category, but it is mine. My relatives, my friends, my co-workers, my husband keep asking, and asking, and asking, "What are you going to do with the hats?"

Honestly, I have no earthly idea. My standard response is usually to laugh a little, shrug my shoulders, and say, "I’ll just have to figure it out. I mean, what do you do with anything you’re left by a relative?" Really what do you every do with something odd that’s been left to you in a will? What if it was a cow? Or a lamppost? Or a weird clown lamp?

First, you have to decide if you want the thing. Do I want it? Yes, I want the collection. At least some of it. Definitely not that atrocity she wore to my wedding. Does it have value sentimental or monetarily? Yes, it’s valuable. Some of the hats are old and/or rare, and as a collection it’s impressive. Emotionally, they are something I fondly remember when I think about my grandmother, so yes, there’s value there. Do you like it? Yes. I’ve always loved costumes, and dressing up, and accessorizing and the hats fit in with all three. And some of them are really cool. Can you keep it? Now, that’s the million-dollar question.

Or, more accurately, the 652-hat question. Where in the world can I keep them? Jean had them lining the walls of her bedroom displayed, as well as in lots and lots of hat boxes in the two window-seat alcoves. There were hats lying about, here and there, in nearly every room of the house. Even the upstairs shower was filled with hats. This method of exhibition is not going to fly with my husband he doesn’t want to redo our bedroom in a hat motif, nor does he want to lose one of our showers to hat storage. And I don’t really want that, either.

I can store them, but to what end? What’s the point of having an amazing fabulous awe-inspiring hat collection if it sits in a storage unit? Maybe I’ll open a tea shop, call it the Mad Hatter, and display the hats. Maybe I’ll have an annual Kentucky Derby party, and let attendees pick their own head-wear. Maybe I’ll just start with photographing, cataloging, and researching them no doubt I’ll have to start a project website.

I know that I will come up with something. I won’t wear a hat every day, but I will find some way to honor this nice memory of my grandmother. Because I don’t have a lot of nice ones to choose from. When she wasn’t criticizing me and it could be anything from my hair, my clothes, my education, my time-wasting hobbies, my lack of nail polish, or my over-indulgence with my son she was picking on other family members complaining about my mother, aunt, or cousins’ clothing, lifestyle, spouse-or-lack-thereof, car choice, or weird food preferences.

Very very rarely did my grandmother have something nice to say but I do remember her complimenting my ability to wear a hat ("Not everyone has the presence, the personality, or the right-shaped face to wear hats, like you and I do," she said) and giving me my own wide-brimmed hat. There was a photo of me, with that hat, in a special spot in her house. And it is sincerely touching that she willed to me this beloved collection of hers. So, I will choose to use the hats as a way to fondly remember Grandma Jean. I’ll remember the reason I have the hats is because, even if she didn’t say it, even if she didn’t show it, deep down, my grandmother loved me.

Luckily I have a little time to figure out what I’m going to do. We packed the masses into the PODS unit my mother ordered (mostly for family furniture, though my inheritance takes up a good portion of it), and we aren’t planning on unpacking it until spring. At which time, I’ll need to have a plan. Wish me well think happy hat thoughts for me and don’t be surprised to see me donning a fancy/amusing/quirky/classic chapeau on any given Sunday in the Park.

Jenny Knaak, guest columnist, is the daughter of Teri Orr, the customary author of "Sunday in The Park."