I was in the grocery store checkout line when a woman caught me eyeing her husband. She seemed curious rather than irritated, but I figured I should explain myself.
“That hat,” I told her, nodding at her husband. “My dad always wore a hat like that.”
Her husband turned around and smiled. “Like this?” he said, touching the brim. His was black, and I remember mostly dark brown, but yes. Like that. He was about the age my dad would have been if he were living. The three of us had a friendly chat, and then it was time for them to pay.
It had been years since I’d seen anyone in a hat like that, and I haven’t seen one in the years since. I think when I was young there was another man who wore one to church, but they weren’t standard even then. I don’t know the name for it; I always thought of it as his Russian hat. Probably because it was faux fur, though it’s not the right shape for a real ushanka.
My dad. I am thinking about him more lately than I have in years. One of my great sorrows — one I don’t think I recognized until he’d been gone twenty years — is that I never knew him when I was an adult. I knew him in the way my boys know me now. A parent. A line of demarcation. A source, I hope, of shelter. A force, sometimes, to be reckoned with. Not an individual. Not quite.
Over the years as I struck out on my own, I came to see my mother with a different lens. Still a constant. But more human, less fixed. A person all aside from her role in my life. I never knew my father this way.
“I never met him,” a friend said over dinner, “but from what I hear, I think the two of you together would have been a hoot.”
We might have, if I’d ever gotten over rolling my eyes at his terrible puns. Or maybe not. Maybe I’d have come out different. I might have been less desperate to slide the mess behind a comic backdrop, and never developed a reflexive habit of making people laugh. Maybe that wouldn’t have made a difference. In my memory, that habit was already established when he died.
But I don’t know. And that is the loss.