A feather in your cap?

Digging through my clip file last week, I unearthed an old Easter essay I wrote for the op-ed page of  The Christian Science Monitor. A tribute to hats, it was originally published on March 28, 1997. I’m reprinting a shorter version here. Happy Easter! — CL

On Easter Sunday, There Were Always Hats…

Along with impossibly shiny patent-leather shoes, my childhood Easter wardrobe wasn’t complete without a brand-new hat. I remember one in particular: a white straw number with satin flowers lining its brim and a long satin ribbon streaming down the back.

In those days, my mother always wore a hat to church, as did my proper Scottish grandmother. My favorites from their collections were fashioned from delicate tulle and feathers, reminding me of the birds’ nests I’d find in my back yard. No doubt, those hats would be highly collectible at our local vintage clothing shops today.

In his lyrics for “The Ladies Who Lunch,” songwriter Stephen Sondheim asks, “Does anyone still wear a hat?” These days, hats aren’t nearly as popular unless you are under nine or over 90. Which seems odd, and a little sad, considering that it wasn’t so long ago when men and women weren’t considered fully dressed without them.

“If, as the saying goes, clothes make the man, it might also be said that hats make the woman. Over the centuries and over the world, hats have provided a quicker way than clothes to identify a woman,” writes Nancy Lindemeyer in The Romance of Hats (Victoria Magazine/Hearst Books).

Veiled or wide-brimmed, tilted above one eye or pulled down over the brow, a hat lends an air of mystery. The protection it provides from the elements is of secondary importance.

And I can’t think of remarkable people without thinking of remarkable hats. Scarlett O’Hara’s coquettish garden hat. Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox. Leslie Caron’s picture-brim in Gigi. Diane Keaton’s floppy fedora in Annie Hall. Charlie Chaplin’s dapper bowler. And, of course, the endearing Harpo Marx’s battered topper.

Earlier this year I hosted a “Women of Many Hats” tea party, hoping to get better acquainted with my neighbors while chasing the winter blues. On the invitations I asked my guests to wear “silly or serious hats” — only if they wanted to — just to keep things from getting too stuffy. Surprisingly, the majority arrived wearing hats — beautiful hats, crazy hats, lushly feathered hats, vintage hats. Just as I’d hoped, the hats lightened the mood of the party and launched some lively conversations.

One guest said she wondered why we didn’t wear our hats more often.

“We’re victims of what’s in fashion,” another answered. “Not many people are wearing hats now, so I just don’t feel comfortable putting one on.” I knew how she felt, as I own several hats but rarely gather enough courage to wear one unless I’m attending a costume party.

The fact that few of us wear hats, I think, is another sign that Americans have lost their flair for romance and mystery. These days, we have no problem baring our hearts (and sundry other parts) in public. Choosing comfort over formality, some of us even wear shorts and blue jeans to church.

In honor of Easter Sunday, though, I might muster the nerve to wear one of my vintage hats to church. For old times’ sake. — Cindy La Ferle (March 28, 1997)

— Top photo: One of several vintage hats from my collection. This one reminds me of the ones my Scottish grandmother wore in the 1960s, and is one of my favorites. Photo by Cindy La Ferle —

How to write a memoir

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  ~From “The Wonder Years” 

DSCN4451Several years ago, I decided to write a St. Patrick’s Day column about my mother’s beloved Grandpa Finney, the son of an Irish immigrant.* I knew he was a moderately successful watercolor artist — and one of the most eccentric characters perched on our family tree — but I needed more material for my piece.

Turning to Mom for help, I asked her to jot down a few memories of her grandfather. Thrilled by the invitation, she gathered a handful of vintage family photographs and got to work. Her four-page letter recounted poignant stories of how Grandpa Finney struggled to make a living as a commercial illustrator during the Depression, working such long hours that he’d often fall asleep at his drafting table.

I only wish I had asked my mother to do this more often. In recent years, vascular dementia has robbed or altered most of her memories, and she has no living relatives to share any family anecdotes left untold.

Since then, I’ve come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that it’s never too early to start writing them down.

Once you commit to the project, you’ll want to create a “memoir file” in your computer. Inspiration is unpredictable, so make a habit of keeping your favorite pen and a notebook handy, too. But before you begin, it’s important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).

In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with your earliest memories and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, such as the summer your uncle taught you how to operate his tractor before you were old enough to drive, or the year you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

I encourage students in my writing workshops to choose memoir over autobiography. It’s much easier to write about one key experience at a time, whether your goal is a book-length memoir or a series of short personal essays.

Here are a few tips to help you mine some memorable treasure:

  1. Make a list of life-changing events, large and small. Put a check by the ones you’ll want to write about first.
  2. Hush your inner critic and give yourself permission to write freely. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft.
  3. Explore your stash of souvenirs and heirlooms. Choose one, then write an essay about how you acquired it and what it means to you. (If you plan to pass the item along to a loved one, include a copy of your piece.)
  4. Use a family recipe as a prompt and delve into the memories it stirs. Your Italian grandmother’s spicy eggplant Parmesan, for instance, is redolent of old-country stories and celebrations.
  5. Grab a box of colored pencils and draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Write about your favorite toys and the pals who visited.
  6. Interview the elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a love song to a war story. Record the interview.
  7. Be a master of detail. Use proper names and employ all of your senses when you write. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
  8. Avoid aimless rambling; make a point and arrive at a conclusion. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts your wisdom, advice or a life lesson.

As Saul Bellow once wrote, “Memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” When we commit our stories to the page, we’re often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than we’d realized. We renew our appreciation for everything we’ve inherited, earned, or lost along the way – including our eccentric relatives. — Cindy La Ferle

_______________

— This column was originally published in Prime magazine (formerly Michigan Senior Living) last year. My column appears bimonthly in the magazine. Watch for the next issue in the April 7 edition of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. —

*The St. Patrick’s Day column, titled “My Wild Irish Relative,” is included in my essay collection, Writing HomePhoto shown above: A watercolor painting by Russell P. Finney, given to my parents on their wedding day.

 

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!

Originally published on March 1, 1998, this piece was assigned by The Christian Science Monitor to honor the birthday of Dr. Seuss. It’s included in my essay collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

DSCN4143

It was the late 1950s, and he put the fun back in reading when he booted Dick and Jane out of my neighborhood. To me, he was (and still is) the wizard of words, the “gandorious” great-uncle of terrific tongue-twisters.

To many adults who have since become parents, he’s a beloved household icon. His rhymes have thrilled more young bookworms than even he could have imagined. And nobody could imagine things quite like Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

His influence is so awesome, in fact, that March 2 — Geisel’s birthday — is designated “Cat in the Hat Day.” Endorsing the holiday, the National Education Association suggests we celebrate by reading to a child tomorrow evening.

Starting in 1937, when he wrote and illustrated his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Geisel found his niche churning out tales of the weird and the whimsical, populating them with squawking fish and top-hatted cats. Even today, few other children’s authors can tickle a four-year-old funny bone as swiftly as Dr. Seuss. Which is why it’s hard to believe that this creator of nerkles and nerds had no kids of his own. Yet he penned 47 children’s books — and sold more than 100 million copies in more than a dozen languages.

Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a brewer who ran a zoo during Prohibition — a zoo that undoubtedly provided endless fodder for young Geisel’s fantasies. (Geisel, by the way, coined the term “nerd” in If I Ran the Zoo.) In 1925 he graduated from Dartmouth, where he’d drawn cartoons for a humor magazine. While studying literature at Oxford in England, he met Helen Palmer, an American literature student who encouraged him to pursue an art career. For a while he drifted in Paris.

In 1927 he came back to the states to marry Helen Palmer. Though he had planned to write novels, the Depression temporarily derailed his art career, and he resumed writing gags for humor magazines. Though his first attempts to publish had been difficult, by the late 1950s “Dr. Seuss” was producing nearly two children’s books a year. Delighting young baby boomers and their parents, Horton Hears a Who was published in 1954, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957.

After Helen Palmer’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Dimond and acquired two stepdaughters. He died in 1991 at eighty-seven, with his family at his bedside.

“His contribution was making reading fun again,” says Laurie Harris, a Pleasant Ridge parent and series editor of Biography Today for young readers. “The rhythm and warmth of his words stay in a child’s head forever.”

“I like nonsense,” Geisel once said. “It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But as every fan discovers, Geisel’s “nonsense” isn’t just for kids. His stories are laced with sophisticated messages and illuminating parables, which is why they’re so much fun to read aloud – with or without children. The Butter Battle Book, for example, tackles the perils of the atomic age. Meanwhile, the uproarious Cat in the Hat gets into big trouble, yet somehow manages to redeem himself and straighten out his messes.

Whether we’re nine or seventy-nine, after all, there are many horrific hills to climb and, yes, incredible kooks to reckon with. — Cindy La Ferle, March 1, 1998

MARCH IS NATIONAL READING MONTH. WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO CELEBRATE?