Her name is Betty Jean. When she goes to the doctor, which is frequent these days, they call her Betty, and I don't know who they are calling when they come to the waiting room door. Most people who know and love her now, just call her BehJean. That's what my father calls her. Don't cross the ts, don't take on the y...just BehJean...
Today she turned 83. 83. What I remember about her birthday growing up, is that we gave her azaleas for the yard, and that she told us that Roosevelt died that day, in Warm Springs, Ga., when she was 17.
I hope to live as long as she has, to see my children settled, grandchildren just about, have a great-grandchild — as she does — one just starting out, and another on the way. Her life has not been easy, but most folks who know her now think it has been. And she will never say.
She is funny, but she does not often show it. She is fond of her granddaughters and grandsons, especially, and loves when they make something over her. (hint hint)
I can recall only once when she ever raised her voice at us as children, though I know there were many times when she must have wanted to. She had practice, at being patient.
Some years ago, I wrote a story of what I remembered about her as my mother, and how that connected to the mother that was me. Here it is. One day, if she will let me, I will write her story, as she remembers it herself.
Hat Check copyright 1995
By Susan Byrum Rountree
My mother had a hat to match every Sunday outfit: a wide-rimmed black hat with a crisp grosgrain bow, a red straw hat with netting for her face, and her favorite, a bright blue cloche style covered with pink flowers and tiny green feathers that waved in the breeze. Each Sunday be it winter or spring, she would delve deep into her closet through her neat hatbox stack, emerging, matched and stunning, ready for church in her best hat. She was beautiful, poised, reserved and in control, her silver hair curling softly from beneath her chosen covering. Watching her from my place on the pew, she was all I ever dreamed of being — thin and beautiful and stunning in a hat.
I should have known I could never emulate my mother. I wore a few hats myself as a child, always with elastic bands uncomfortably hugging my chin. But I was silly, not sophisticated like my mother. Her hats were an extension of her personality, each one chosen carefully as a way for her, the mother of three young children, to show the world that despite our prickly heat, bandaged elbows and broken bones, she still had control. Just look at her hats.
I’ve always looked awful in hats. My hair is just short enough to be crushed beneath a brim, and my ears poke out just a little too far. That’s not to say I don’t have hats of my own. I actually have many more than my mother could ever dream of fitting into her small bedroom closet, but each one is invisible to the naked eye.
My self-portrait mirrors the drawing of the old man in a favorite children’s story of mine, Hats for Sale. There I am with poked out ears and oogling eyes trying to balance a wobbly row of hats on my unkempt head.
On top is my mother hat, a hardhat, its shell stuffed with tissue, Band-Aids, and shrill sounding whistles, should I need to be a nurse, a referee, tutor, guidance counselor, fireman, handyman, construction worker and a host of other people, depending upon my momentary needs. (This of course is not to be confused with the parent hat, a beanie which is worn specifically during moments when your preteen daughter’s boyfriend calls and you want to embarrass her by actually saying hello.) Below the mother hat is a chauffeur’s cap, under which I can be baseball coach, piano player, ambulance or sportsfan, depending, again, on moments and needs. Squeezed in the middle is the wife hat, which comes complete with it’s own “I told you so” ribbon tied around it’s brim, a honeydo list waving like Minnie Pearl’s price tag and a night light, should I fall asleep before my husband’s flight gets in. This hat, which doubles as a video prompt screen to remind me how to conduct adult conversation, is a must for nights out at the movies, and dinner with friends.
Scattered in the pile are a dozen other styles for when I need to be a daughter, sister, neighbor or friend, and a “don’t mess with me” Stetson I keep on the kitchen counter at supper in case one of those annoying telephone salesmen should call. Somewhere far below them all is my writer’s hat, a tiny pillbox, which I never really ever take off, but which is only seen in rare moments when all the other hats are not otherwise occupied.
Not being a one-hat-at-a-time kind of person, I usually have several hats fighting for head space at once. My chef’s hat creates at the stove while I talk on the phone with the help of my business hat and prepare a snack for the kids in my short-order cook hat, my writer’s hat constantly feeding me with first lines of stories it wishes I’d write. (Perhaps I’ll get a secretary hat to write them all down.) But you won’t find my unworn hats tucked neatly away in boxes. They are likely strewn across the kitchen counter, waiting for someone responsible, like my mother, to put them away.
The difference between my mother and me is that she chose each and every one of her hats for a purpose; if anyone had asked, I would choose to keep only a few of mine. Most, as a friend reminded me the other day, are thrown at me as if I were a hat rack, standing empty and inviting.
I daydream of being a magician, top hat in hand, trying to pull one hat out of the pile to wear alone without all the others spilling onto the floor. Every now and then, I can do it, though on most days, my hat stack tips and sways like the deck of a ship in stormy weather. A few stay put, but many fall, and I scramble to put them back in place before anyone notices I’m not managing.
Despite my varied collection, I still lack that one hat to give me the poise provided by my mother’s feathered cloche. Perhaps its because I’ve never been in control of my life as my mother was of hers. Or maybe, as I’d rather think, she really wore all the same hats I do, but she just used her favorite feathered one to hide them all.
Happy Birthday, Beety Jean. Once again. sbr