The hat nestles in a round pale pink hat box—one of the many boxes, holders, pockets and so forth we’ve lost—with the name of a Connecticut dress shop on top. Several layers of tissue paper create a frothy protection; to the top layer, a neatly written note in my mother’s hand is pinned:
HAT GIVEN TO ME BY BARRY AFTER THE LIBERATION OF PARIS, 1944
The hat is actually a round ring of feathers, grouse, pheasant, maybe even a cock feather or two, still fresh and soft after all thee years. Two clips are fixed to the inside rim, to hold the hat in place. A piece of veiling covers the whole concoction.
My mother wore the hat for perhaps forty years—I remember seeing her in it when I was a child—then finally put it away carefully and saved it for the rest of her life, a reminder of the years my parents had been separated by World War 2 and of their shared rejoicing when U.S. troops drove the Nazis out of Paris. On the safe side of the Atlantic, we had perhaps really understood the horror of that war when we saw news photos of jack-booted Nazis marching up the Champs-Élysées.
The pretty little hat has another facet to its history. After the fall of France, the Nazis tried to force the Paris couturiers to move their establishments to Berlin. They all refused, even when they had to close up shop due to the rationing of cloth. Hats, too, disappeared, until the women of Paris decided to show their resistance by making hats out of pleated and folded paper.
So my mother’s little feathered hat, although made in the U.S., might have reminded her of the wartime paper hats photographed on Paris Streets.
How good she was at memorializing the past, a gift many of the women in my family have inherited. Along with her frugality, her reverence for the past were perhaps her main legacy.
I have the historian’s skeptical view of the past and of the vestal virgins who attend it so assiduously. Their reverence seems to depend on a net of lies and denials. But when I touch the soft feathers of my mother’s hat, preserved for seventy years, I understand a little of what the other women in the family feel.
Perhaps there is no past unless its artifacts are preserved, no memory unless there are tangible bits to which it can be attached, no liberation without its photographs, no rejoicing without a pretty little hat.