Apr 25, 2023

Michiana Chronicles: The fancy hat

I was downtown in a commercial building that offered a few shops and a restaurant arranged around a central lobby. I finished my errand in one of the shops and returned to the lobby. Entering from the sidewalk at that moment was an older woman and a younger one who was perhaps her daughter. The weather was still chilly, and they wore light coats. They were dressed up a bit, so maybe they had come for a special occasion sit-down lunch. The older woman tapped her way forward with a cane.

She also wore a soft knit hat in vibrant, wavy colors, striking to see but an unusual style for a person of her generation. She had it pulled down to the top of her ears, where no hair showed. I was pretty sure I recognized the purpose of the hat. If by chance this was her first social outing after a course of chemotherapy, I knew she might feel tentative or insecure about the hat and what it hid. Staring was not an option, no matter how pretty the hat was. I could look away, but that felt cold. Or I could go ahead and acknowledge what I was pretty sure was the case.

That's a beautiful hat, I said. Thank you, she said. I thought I should say a little more, if I could find the right understated words that did not demand self-revelation from her. So I continued.

My daughter knitted one rather like it for my mother a while back, I said. Now we reached a place of mutual recognition. I could see that we understood each other without having to confess any hard details. And we had stopped walking by now.

How's your mother doing, she asked. I was moved by her question, as I am any time someone expresses empathy when their own substantial worries could easily distract them from looking outward. What a beautiful thing to be able to do. And maybe too she hoped to hear of a person like herself who had reached a happy ending.

My mother is doing well, I said, thank you for asking. Best wishes to you, I said, and then she and I nodded to each other like two old monks as we resumed our journeys. Our unscheduled moment of quiet personal connection was over.

I keep our encounter in mind and sometimes reflect on it. It was a bit like spotting a secret handshake and knowing for the first time what it means. Here are the things it tells me.

On our better days we manage sometimes to pay attention to other people, to recognize and, if it seems right, acknowledge where they are in life. We know acknowledgement feels good when it happens to us. And I shouldn't presume about another person, which is not easy for me to do. When it comes to someone else's troubles, I don't know the half of it.

Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook