For you, there may be no significance to purple hats. They're just an item, an accessory. A cute bauble slumped on the hat-display at your nearest department store. A purple hat perhaps may catch your eye as you stroll by the accessory section, sticking out from the morass of scarves, jangle bracelets, and fedoras.
You might even pause for a purple hat, intrigued by the shapely curve of the brim or the seamless grace of its ribbon. You model for a moment in the nearby full-length mirror the store has so conscientiously provided on a support column. Your chin tilts this way and that. You give the hat a sassy jaunt, and you ask "Am a purple hat kind of girl?" But then, you glance at the fifteen dollar price tag and crack a rueful smile. Maybe not today. After all, it's just a hat.
But you see, for my family, purple hats have a special importance. Let me explain.
About a year ago, I was in the midst of writing what basically amounted to an undergraduate thesis. What, your bachelor's program didn't require that? Well, welcome to Piedmont College-- where they most definitely do. Somehow, mine turned into a 50 page behemoth--probably due to my quite annoying, over-achievement issue. Whatever the cause of my verbosity, I had spent two semesters up to my elbows in creative nonfiction and family genealogy research--a.k.a.... spending a lot of time getting dusty. I was either in the library, poking about the little-used but often-needed literary criticism shelves or, in the attic, roving through cardboard boxes full of family photo albums and postcards. Occasionally, when I came up for a brief breath of air and sunlight, I would swing by my advisor's office--for that weekly pep talk. "Yes your project has worth. No, you're not digging a huge hole for yourself. Yes, you're going to graduate. Yes, you're a good writer. Grow a pair." (Not really, but seriously, that's a close summation of how this casptone process unfolds.)
So that's how I found myself sitting in my professor's dim office, discussing the color purple. No, not the book. The literal color purple. Well, I guess if we're going to get technical, we were really discussing family folklore, history, and the great breach caused by the passage of time. As the years whirl onward, we lose so much of ourselves, of our past. For example:
Leaning back in his broad office chair, my professor said, "So much gets lost over time. Even in this so-called digital age. We just don't tell family legends to our children like we used to. Or pass these things down. The little things about a person's personality ...like someone's favorite food or their favorite color...they just get lost. They're not important, supposedly." He waved a hand my way. "I bet you couldn't tell me your great-grandmothers favorite color."
"It was purple," I blurted.
Then, I stopped. Wait. I just contradicted my professor; am I allowed to do that? Did I just pull a major smart alec move?
He cracked a grin. "Now, see. That tells me something about your family." At my puzzled frown, he said, "You are keeping people alive. You're telling your stories."
And that's what I'm trying to explain today--with all this ramble and jumble about purple hats.
We once had this little old lady in our lives. Picture her: slumping in her padded rocking chair, one hand on the armrest, wearing a floral-print apron over her dress, her hair a delicate, wispy confection. And what I can only describe as a beatific expression on her face. She had the smile of the blessed, which she in turn broadcast like a loving blessing onto her family. I knew her for the entire first half of my life. Her passing was like the ending of an age; she had been the lodestone our entire family gravitated toward and around. Family dinners and holidays were typically centered around her; our entire, dispersed family connected at this single root-point. After her death, we divided into our respective family units and generations to celebrate our holidays. The time with Ma at the head of the table had ended.
My own mother often says of her: "Can you imagine Ma's life? She went from horse-and-buggy days to the landing on the moon. Can you imagine what she thinks of the world now-a-days? Wonder if anyone has ever seen so much change in one lifetime."
Like my professor said, the little lady we called Ma--whether she was our mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, or great-grandmother--saw time whirl right past, with all its wild fluctuations and bravado moments. Yet, she remained this quiet, steady presence. A calm solidity at the head of the table. And yet, as if to belie that solidity, her favorite color was purple. Bright, bold, vivacious purple. And she let us know it too, wearing purple dresses and little purple hats, growing blue-purple hydrangeas by her front stoop. As if she was saying for all the world, I'm alive and bright and happy no matter what time throws at me.
So, you see, that's why I'm going to such lengths to explain the power of a purple hat. Because, a little purple hat is more than just a cute accessory available at your local department store. It's a story: a whole life--bright and solid--captured in a little item, a little moment. And its mine to wear and share proudly, no matter the price tag, no matter the fashion.