It was his granddaughter’s kitchen. She and her husband liked old things, such as the house, and they hung the hat there. It looked right, an old farmer’s hat on an old farm kitchen wall.
And Grandpa didn’t need it anymore.
He used to wear it in the summer when he went outside to tend the roses that grew next to his brick house in Elmhurst. He never farmed, really.
He grew up on a farm in Sweden, near Stockholm, in the town where Volvos are made now. But he was happy to leave when he was 18, coming to America and to Oak Park, IL to be a carpenter’s apprentice.
When he talked to his grandchildren about coming to America, he made it sound exciting, a big adventure for and 18-year-old man in the late 1800s.
He got to be a good carpenter with large, bony hands. He wasn’t slow but he was meticulous. When he was old he often said, “They don’t make houses good now, them make houses too fast. They can fall apart next year, the way they make them now.”
Grandpa’s houses never fell apart. He never rushed a job. He took his time.
Once, when he was a young carpenter, he was still working on a kitchen wall when the painters arrived to start their part of the job. They set up their scaffolds anyway and started painting around him. Grandpa wasn’t finished yet so he just stayed and worked on the wall. He could be stubborn.
Somehow, a can of green paint tipped over on the scaffolding and fell on his head. Green paint dripped all over his hair.
He was mad. Although, when he told the story years later, he said it was very funny, he was mad when it happened. He knew that the painters had given the can a little help in tipping over.
He decided he wasn’t going to leave his kitchen wall unfinished, even if he had green paint all over his head. So he kept working.
When he was through, he fetched some turpentine and rubbed it over his head to get the paint out. He did a good job getting it out, but the turpentine made his hair, which was very curly, go straight.
When he got home, his wife, Elsa, looked at him and said, “Nils, what happened to your hair? It’s straight.”
“From now on, I’m going to wear a hat,” he said.
And he did. Even when he was very old, in his 90s, and had hardly any hair at all, he wore a hat whenever he went out.
He had a hunter’s hat, red wool flannel with ear flaps that buckled on top. He didn’t care much for it. But it had been a gift. He wore it in winter when he walked to the grocery or worked in houses that had no heat.
He called it his “dumb bunny Norwegian” hat. “In Sweden,” he said, “hunters are smart. They know it’s a pretty silly thing, going hunting with covers on your ears so you can’t hear. Only a Norwegian would wear this hat. A Swedish hunter would say, “I didn’t have so much luck with the hunting today but I sure caught a lot of dumb bunnies.”
He wore a nice tan hat with a cloth band when he dressed in a suit. He took it off and held it in his hands when group pictures were taken at weddings. When he was a guest in someone’s home, he put it on, then took it off, then put it on again while he waited at the front door or grandma to say her goodbyes.
When he youngest grandson was baptized, his daughter-in-law gave him a freshly picked peony bud to wear in his lapel during the christening party. It was so hot he had to take his jacket off, so he tucked the flower into his hatband. The peony had opened into a giant blossom. “This baby will think he has TWO grandmas,” he said.
His farmer’s straw hat helped to protect his weakening eyes from the sun when he tended his roses, but he never admitted that. He always said, “This hat is for my head. I don’t want anything dropping on my head while I’m working.”
He kept working long after retirement, borrowing a fancy Glidden paint cap while he helped his son build a rec room. They argued a lot. His son learned to work, not slowly but meticulously. When they were through, grandpa took the cap home with him in case he needed it again.
He didn’t. One night, someone phoned very late to say the neighborhood was being evacuated because of a gas leak. It wasn’t true – just some kids with an odd sense of humor. Grandpa moved too fast to gather his coat and hat, and he fell, hurting his head.
He couldn’t be buried with a hat when he died, so Grandma gave the straw hat to their granddaughter, who hung it up on her country kitchen wall.
It looked right there.
His youngest grandson sometimes visited the house where the hat hung. He almost always took it off the wall and wore it, sometimes making a funny entrance into a room where other guests sat, making them laugh. Other times, he just sat with it on, looking outside or looking down at his large, bony hands.
It looked right there, too.