Monday, January 21, 2013

Hats are hot again!

Hats are hot again! 

This Christmas I gave everyone at our family gathering a hat I had knitted.  I had been mulling in my mind what to give that showed my love without spending money on things they already had or didn’t need. 

Great-granddaughter Maisie asked for a Rapunzel hat in early November, one with braids. A Rapunzel hat? I fashioned  her one with long golden braids and that got my knitting needles clicking. 

I knitted slouch hats, toques, cloches – every style and color with wool I purchased at the thrift store. It is amazing how many unfinished projects end up at the thrift store, often expensive wool.  A few balls of this and a skein of that – enough for hats.  

My family members could keep what I chose for them or exchange it for another. I had a big sack of hats.I enclosed the following reasons to wear a hat: 

To keep warm .. brr...brrr...brrrr

To look cool, COOL, COOL

To use an offering plate when the real one is full.  (As a child I often saw men use hats as offering plates)

To identify your tribe.  “I Am a Wiebe Original.”

To tie your head down in a Kansas tornado. (It wouldn’t do to go chasing down the street for your head, would it?)

To let people know what you do – or don’t do. (I am a nurse)

To bring in eggs from the henhouse – if you keep chickens.

 To hide your hair when it needs washing – and who hasn’t tried to do that with turbans, berets, scarves?

 To keep your bald head from blinding friends.

 To remind yourself that the person (that’s Katie) who knitted the hat loves you.

So I’m advocating wearing hats. Hats are hot, said the morning newspaper.  When I was a child everyone wore something on their heads.  A man never walked outside the door without first reaching for his hat. 

A woman, especially a married woman,  wore a hat to show that she was attached to someone. And to match her dress.

Yet buying a hat was always a problem for my mother, having grown up in southern Russian, where women wore shawls or Haubes, not hats. But now in this New Country she decided to wear a hat.

That’s when the mail order catalog, that much-loved book of all small-town Depression-era children, came into full focus. Wishing came free.

Sending off an order to Eaton’s or Simpsons was always a big event. First came the long discussion about what was needed, then the  repeated paging through the catalog again and again to find the best buy. We read the description of the articles to ourselves and to Mother who didn’t read English as yet.  Was it available in the right size? No. Then another look.   Shoes were always a problem. If, after two tries the shoes still didn’t fit right, we traced the outline of our growing feet on cardboard and sent that to the mail order house.

But how can you do that with a hat? I wrote about this process in my book The Storekeeper’s Daughter.  After hours spent studying the catalog, Mother courageously ordered a hat. “Get one with a big brim,” said Dad.  She was wearing a big brimmed hat when he first met her. A green one. But she wanted one of the more stylish ones without a brim. Size was also a problem, for she wore a bun. How could she fit a bun under a close-fitting hat? 

Off went the order for a brown felt hat with orange feather decorations.

The day the big box arrived, we waited impatiently  for her to open the package and pull The Hat  carefully, oh so carefully, from its nest of tissue paper.  She tried it on and examined it carefully in front of our only mirror larger than a hairbrush.

“Does it look good?” We knew better than to express strong opinions at this stage of the process.

“I’ll try it on again when Dad comes home.”

Another try-on session. Dad was non-committal, Mother uncertain.

“It doesn’t look good.”  The decision had been made. Sadness tinged her words. She knew  Dad hated customers who brought back merchandise, half eaten.  Yet she had too much of Dad’s money tied  up in this hat.  It didn’t look good. The picture in the catalog and the reality didn’t match.

Her mouth formed lines of determination yet sorrow. She examined the hat carefully again from every angle to confirm her decision. Yes, it had to go back.

Any item returned to the mail order house included a long letter of apology by one of my older sisters. Mother believed real people worked for these companies.  They weren’t faceless entities.  The fact that the cloche didn’t look good on a person with her kind of forehead wasn’t their fault. She had misjudged the picture. She offered her sincere apologies with emphasis on the words, “I didn’t wear it.”

Mail order companies, among the most accommodating business, were happy to serve their thousands of customers who were learning the art of buying by mail even though they didn’t know English or the new customs well.

Ordering from the catalog, of course, meant that you might meet the same hat coming toward you next Sunday on several other women.

My hat recipients can be sure they won’t meet the same hat any day. Each hat  is a special creation for a special person. 

 Hats are hot, not just cool,  again. Wear a hat today!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sisters are forever

Sisters are forever

Henry called Monday  that my sister Frieda had died that morning.  She was my oldest sister.  Now I am the oldest sister. And it is a strange feeling to be the one on top. 

As oldest sister Frieda looked after us younger children even when we were all youngsters in long underwear and red stockings. On wintry evenings as the snow drifted around our little frame house, we five children would all crawl into her and Susie’s bed to crouch under the heavy wool comforters, while she told us made-up stories.  She had us enthralled. At the moment the villain was about to pounce, she stopped short --- to be continued the next night—and  tumbled us out of her bed into the cold.   

Yesterday evening  I took out a large binder of her letters saved from over the years.  In one letter she commented that she and niece Jo-Ann had discussed their role as oldest sister and how siblings didn’t really understand why they were the way they were – solicitous, organizing, arranging...

“Jo-Ann and I understood each other perfectly – why we try so hard to meet the needs of others, why we always take leadership roles.  We don’t always want to be the oldest sister! In other words, we were going to stop making other people’s problems our problems! Ha!”

Ha! indeed. Frieda couldn’t stop making other people’s problems her problems anymore than  she could hold back a prairie blizzard. When my husband died unexpectedly in 1962 she flew to Kansas, bringing a black hat and dress for me to wear.  “I knew you wouldn’t have one” and widows were expected  to wear black in those days.

While she was with us, she  answered door bells and phone calls,  kept food  on the table, made lists of people to thank after she was gone, in short,  kept our little household going while I waited for the numbness to wear off.  

The first summer after Walter’s death,  she and sister Anne kept my three oldest children for about eight weeks.  Little Jamie stayed with me. She and Henry brought them back to Kansas later in August,  overwhelmed  by the grueling Kansas heat yet entranced by the nightly song of the cicadas.

Before brother  Jack’s wife Joyce died Frieda  nursed her for about six weeks in Battleford.  Joyce  died of cancer at a relatively young age.

Frieda and Henry  as well as Anne and Wes looked after our  parents, driving to British Columbia from Alberta many times to attend to their needs. Henry became their financial advisor when they were unable to go to the bank and look after their financial affairs.

I could keep mentioning such events with Henry always graciously accepting her absences, sometimes long ones, as she went to the aid of one family member after another.

She wrote letter after letter, supporting me in my writing and other work, even working behind the scenes to have a local college offer me a teaching position. Whenever she heard a good story from Mother and Dad or our uncles she wrote it out in detail for me to add to my growing collection of family history.

Henry gave my son James his first glider ride while Frieda and I stayed on the firm  ground and stared upwards, tracing the path of the glider as long as we could, only to find later on,  that I had burned my face raw -- and this wasn't even a Kansas sun.

When I was attending Saskatoon Technical Collegiate in 1942, living in one tiny light-housekeeping room with a couch,  table, dresser,  and a windowsill for cold storage for food, she was in nurses training.  In those days nurses were trained, really trained, long hours, split shifts, low income.  She and a friend sometimes stopped by my room while I was at school to get away from hospital routine, heated a can of soup on my two-burner coal oil stove,  then left a dime on the table to pay for their purloined food. That was their idea of great entertainment.

I was her bridesmaid at her wedding in 1944  feeling glamorous in a long pink taffeta gown made by an aunt. Henry was in the Air Force.

 An aura of romance always enhanced  their marriage  An college professor  from Edmonton while in  Kansas mentioned to me that he knew Henry and Frieda only as “the couple who ate their evening meal by candlelight.” Not a bad way to be identified. Elegance and romance are good for the soul, I wrote to her.

In 2009  I attended their 65th wedding anniversary in 2009.  I  told myself that this was probably the last time I would see Henry and Frieda, these perennial lovers. I no longer traveled well.I was getting too old for international travel.

It was a memorable event in several ways, not the least being  that a thunderstorm knocked out the power in the building where the celebration was taking place. 

What to do?  Ushers rummaged in nooks and drawers for candles, and  so that evening  we all ate by  the warm glow of candlelight.  Elegance and romance to the end.

Rest in peace, Frieda. I will miss you, oldest sister.