Over eighty years old, her white hair curled out from beneath a ball cap emblazoned with “VAN HALEN” like wild music untamed. Even cooler, she had no idea who Van Halen was, nor did she care. It was just a good hat, and she needed one. Great Aunt Anna Balli wore many figurative hats in her life; teacher, sister, and farmer, but one of her most important roles for me was that of a surrogate grandmother. My maternal grandmother, Olga, passed on when I was only two so her six sisters became my grandmother all rolled up into one. Anna was strong and sweet and we kids loved her (and her bags of candy in the bottom drawer of her big metal filing cabinet.)
In the summer the great aunts wore straw hats in the garden and the hay fields to afford them a bit of shade. As kids my mom, Rose Ann, and her sister, Hilda, received token straw hats but Mom didn’t like hers very much as it “hindered her”. She said it made her head sweat and “wouldn’t stay on when you wanted to flounce around.”
Their dad, Nelson (Pap), wore a fedora. It smelled like hay, and tractor grease, and adventure…and it shielded his blue eyes just enough so they didn’t steal the thunder from his one gold tooth. Pap was a great story teller and often entertained us kids with recollections of his wilder days. I was a teenager when I recorded his one. In Pap’s own words, “I was helpin’ an old man, Charlie Claypool, across the low foot-log. When he went across, his head would swim so I would lead him. Well, he slipped and got away from me and fell in! He had on a brand new hat that went into the water so I went after the hat. The water washed Charlie’s coat up over his head and he had an awful time a flouncin’ around. He said, ‘Why didn’t you get me out and let the hat go?’ and I told him ‘I knowed you could get out but your brand new hat couldn’t!’ That hat floated clear down opposite the Elmer Harris house with me a runnin’ along the bank this side of the river after it! “
Hat appreciation is in our blood so naturally Mom, my sister (Cindy), and I entered the hat contest at a 4-H conference when the opportunity presented itself. Mom’s hat was a great long cloth snake coiled high atop her head, and mine was a flattened road-kill skunk (also cloth). While they were grand, they were not even close to Cindy’s hat. She stood there in that line up with a giant bird nest containing eggs the size of cantaloupes on her head with a chin strap made of a scarf to old the nest in place. In her hand she proudly held a stiff unbent clothes hanger with a papier- mache bluebird on the end of it, the likes of which she would sway back and forth when the judges were looking so it looked like the bird was flying. I thought she was the most wonderful human alive, and if you could have seen that floating bird over her head, you would have too.
I’ll close by saying Happy Mother’s Day to all the women, regardless if you have children or not, for we all wear many hats. My friend Heather takes a special needs child at church to get ice cream. Teachers and nurses daily nurture children not their own. Recently with the Easter story we were reminded how in Jesus’ last breaths He tells Mary John is now her son and says to John that Mary is now his mother. (John 19: 26,27) And it brings me back to the Van Halen hat…Maybe we can be a good friend, mother, sister, father, to someone…simply because they need one.
Janet Cowger- Fliegel