"The Empty Hatbox"

There's such an irony to Cappy Hall Rearick's keepsake story. The empty hatbox she keeps and wrote about for Project Keepsake is not empty at all—it is full of life. Full of moments. Full of memories.

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I devoured Cappy's story from beginning to end. I, too, am a hat person and can mark certain eras of my life by the hats that occupied my closet shelf. But it wasn't just our mutual love of chapeaus (or chapeaux) that drew me to her story. I love the way Cappy wove her story with familiar imagery. I love the references to divas of the past. I love her choice of words—"dismal mood is invaded," pieces of my past leap to life," "the cusp of teenagery," "plu-purple fit," "chunky pubescent elf," and "it held transitions of a young girl's life." 

She ends her story with, "There is a hatbox in everyone's life." I believe this to be true. I often say, "Everyone has a keepsake, and every keepsake has a story to tell."

Enjoy Cappy's story!

Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” ~ Oscar Wilde

The moving van is almost packed, the hired movers wait outside for me to give them instructions. I amble through my mother’s empty house, the place I once called home, trying to memorize what I will never see again.

My dismal mood is invaded when the screen door slams behind me. An impatient mover has shuffled into the room to ask, “Did you want this old box to go on the truck, or what?”

It is an old hatbox, faded now and shabby with age. Upon seeing it again after such a long time, pieces of my past leap to life and before I know it, I am swept back in time to the early Fifties when hats were the height of fashion.

Dressing up meant wearing your Sunday clothes, white cotton gloves and always a hat. I am twelve-years-old again and Mama says I can pick out my own Christmas hat for the first time ever. Since I am on the cusp of teenagery, I fancy myself showing up at church on Christmas Day wearing a big picture hat that will make me the spittin’ image of Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful. Mama rolls her eyes at that and laughs out loud.

“Twelve-year-olds don’t wear picture hats. They wear little girl hats and look like June Allyson in Little Women.”

I pitched a plu-purple fit, but it didn’t win the argument. Mama took me down to Yetta’s Little Hat Shoppe and bought me a hat made of red felt and trimmed with green holly. I looked like a chunky pubescent elf.

After that, however, hats began to signify seasons of growth in my life. At fourteen, when I was in my Casablanca phase and yearning to be as mysterious as Ingrid Bergman, I learned to drive. I drove Daddy’s car all over town wearing a French Beret cocked to the side while pretending to be a grownup.

Heartbreak of first love ushered in a quasi-serious period for me so I cut my hair in a pageboy bob. Then I bought a brown knitted tam and tried every which way to look as noble as Jane Wyman portraying Johnny Belinda.

After some time passed, I changed my hairstyle to the quintessential shoulder-length flip. I bought pillbox hats to wear in order to emulate Jackie Kennedy during the America’s Camelot Period. That was the same year I voted for the first time, the year I became a woman.

The bored man eager to finish packing his truck and dangling that old hatbox at me could not possibly know its importance. It wasn’t just a box that had once stored hats; it held transitions of a young girl’s life.

Seeing the old hatbox again quickly spirited me back to the Main Street of my past. It was Christmas and the local hardware store window was decorated with floor-to-ceiling trees while electrically charged elves pulled wheelbarrows piled high with red garden tools. Hershey’s Kisses were on sale at the Rexall Drug Store on the corner, and It’s A Wonderful Life was flashing on the marquee at the movie theater across the street. The clock outside the First National Bank had just begun to chime when I saw my mother going into the department store to shop, probably for fabric to make me a dress for Christmas. I followed her up the creaky, wooden stairs to the second floor and watched her rub pieces of cloth through her thumb and forefinger, something she always did while making up her mind on what to buy. Minutes later I strolled past the Five & Dime, the small store sold everything from balloons to baby diapers. I stopped long enough to fill my nose with the fragrance of freshly popped popcorn wafting from the front double doors. A Christmas parade was in full swing as it moved slowly down the street with decorated floats and kids running alongside trying to catch the hard candy tossed by Santa and his elf helpers. I was a Girl Scout again in that moment marching in that parade wearing the uniform and the corresponding hat.

Moments I had thought were long forgotten had rushed back to me the minute I looked at that weary old hat box. I don’t remember throwing it away but I must have. Seeing it again, however, made me ask myself how I could ever have thought of discarding it?

In the middle of that thought, the impatient mover chose to say, “Lady, if you want me to toss this empty old box you need to tell me. It’s getting dark and I have to get on the road soon.”

At this very moment, I feel an overwhelming need for homegrown simplicity stored in that hatbox. True, it does appear to be empty and worthless, but it is not. What it contains is the essential food for my hungry soul. With tears of remembrance in my eyes, I shake my head. “Don’t you dare toss that hatbox. Don’t even think about it. It might look empty to you, but it’s full of treasures I can never replace.”

There is a hatbox in everyone’s life.
— Cappy Hall Rearick, 2014

Cappy Hall Rearick is a syndicated humor columnist and author of six books. She lives in Saluda, North Carolina, that town that time forgot.

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What about you? Do you have a keepsake story? I encourage you to share your story with family and friends. Share the origins and histories of the most special keepsakes in your possession. Write down the stories that matter. Keep storytelling alive!

To read other stories about keepsakes and the memories they hold, please purchase a signed copy of Project Keepsake by clicking the link on the left. It's on sale now with no shipping and handling charges. And by the way, it's a great Christmas gift or birthday gift for a loved one, especially when paired with a keepsake.

If you live in Northwest Georgia, buy from one of these small businesses—Dave & Pauli's Art Emporium in Dalton, Cottage Treasures in Ringgold, Blue Willow Antiques in Cave Spring, The Lighthouse in Calhoun, the Harris Arts Center in Calhoun, or A Gift of Season in Calhoun, and the Payne Farm Vegetable Stand in Lily Pond.