The Hat . . .
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
It’s just a hat. Nothing fancy. It’s knit and is Kelly green with shamrocks with a white puff ball. You can probably buy it at any novelty store in the St. Patrick’s Day section. Someone would look at it and say – “it’s nothing special”. But to me, it’s priceless. It represents some of the best times with my family. This hat defined my heritage. To our chagrin, we have since found out we have other nationalities in us besides Irish but that changes nothing. We are Irish through and through – no DNA test is going to change that.
This hat belonged to my father. He wore it every year on Parade day and St. Patrick’s Day. To those of you who aren’t lucky enough to be Irish – the Parade I refer to is the St. Patrick’s Day parade which takes place in Corktown on Michigan Avenue the Sunday before St. Patrick’s day. My father was the first to take me down to the parade and down to Corktown to celebrate St. Patrick's day.
Back in the day, the parade was mostly families who came out to celebrate the Irish. It has since changed and it can bring as many as a million people along Michigan Avenue to celebrate the Green.
We would get ourselves ready for the big day. Pulling out the stored bag of Irish paraphenalia. All of us wearing some type of green clothing. Beads around our necks and hats on our heads. My mother would get us green carnations to put on our labels. I bought my Dad a sweater when I was in Ireland back in the 80's. That sweater would become a part of his yearly outfit along with his green Irish hat. To fit in with the crowd, one must dress like an overzealous fan. Buttons, hats, boas, shamrocks, green hair and even a few kilts. If you’re not dressed this way, you don’t fit in. Seriously.
Every year my family and extended family would head down to Nemo’s to watch the parade. We’d touch base with each other prior to the big day. Checking to see who was going and more importantly who was going early to snag a table in the bar. A very important job! Dad would call his brothers and friends checking to see who was on board. We all felt Dad’s excitement. It was like Christmas day.
We’d all arrive, at Nemo’s, in our “wearing of the green” finery. Hats, beads, buttons, green hair, you name it, we had it on. There would be Dad in his Ireland sweater and shamrock hat. And even though we all looked quite silly in our paraphernalia, my father never did. He always looked distinguished in his Irish attire.
Over the years, our group expanded. We brought friends, dates, then spouses followed by grandchildren and eventually great grandchildren. And Dad was there until he couldn’t go anymore. Always wearing his Kelly green hat.
Dad introduced us to a variety of people over the years. The “Vernor Highway” gang, a group of guys that grew up in his childhood neighborhood. A lively group of guys who brought us many laughs throughout the years. (More than once, at the end of the day, we ended up at a coney island restaurant on Vernor Highway). The McGuckin’s, a large Irish family were always ready to sing an Irish tune. Kevin would always end up singing his rendition of Danny Boy. One year they even rented a motor home and parked it in Nemo’s parking lot. “It’s a place to take a nap, refresh and eat a sandwich or two”, they said. My Dad would tell us about various people in the bar. Somehow he knew who they were and what they did for a living. One man in particular, Dad would say, “He’s a professional picket for the UAW, among other things wink, wink”. I wasn’t sure what he was implying with that statement.
Most of the people he pointed out, we’d only see one day a year so I was fine not knowing the details. We were all just yearly regulars celebrating the green. My Dad brought this crazy cast of characters into our lives and showed us how to appreciate every one.
My Italian husband had no idea what the parade was about until he met me. The first time at Nemo’s he made the mistake of standing with my Dad and my uncles at the bar. Looking back on it now, I can see my Dad was having a little “fun” with my new boyfriend. Sizing him up if you will. Bob would have one beer in his hand and look down and see two more in the “queue”. Bob had no idea what he was up against. My father and uncles had plenty of experience with parade day and my 5’9” husband was no match for the big burly Irishmen. It took a few years of Bob not making it into work the next day to realize he cannot hang with the big boys.
When we were all married and had children, Dad left his post at the bar and proudly stood in front of Nemo’s with his grandchildren and great grandchildren. Each kid lined up with their plastic bags ready to snag some candy being thrown from the passing floats. And there was Dad, right there with them exuberantly grabbing candy. Making sure each child had a bag full of candy and beads.
When he died and we were planning his funeral, we wanted to include things that represented his passions in life: Golf and his Irish heritage. During the offertory of the gifts, his grandchildren and great grandchildren brought down, golf balls, a golf club, a golf towel, tees and a score card and the final gift: his Kelly green hat.
I have the hat now. I bring it out the beginning of March in preparation of the two big days. Always thinking about him when I look at it. I went to the parade yesterday. It was a miserable day, cold, wet and windy. So windy there were wind advisories. My 100% Italian husband was up and ready before I was, car packed and ready to go. I guess he’s officially converted. My Dad would be happy.
I wasn’t feeling it at first, the weather was not great but we left the house at 8:00 to insure a parking spot and a table. We arrive at Nemo’s at 8:20 and we’re sitting in the car because it’s too cold to stand outside. My siblings haven’t come this year. I’m pondering if this was such a good idea when I reach in my bag of Irish paraphernalia and take out Dad’s hat. I set it on the windshield and stare at it. I think about this ordinary green knit hat and the legacy it created. About the sense of pride of our heritage my Dad instilled in us. His sense of excitement for these days that was contagious. The cast of characters he brought into our lives which were pure enjoyment. This ordinary hat has given me a lifetime of precious memories.
The more I look at the hat, the more excited I become for this cold, wet, windy day and all the possibilities it brings. As I’m sitting both my boys call and say they’re on their way down, save them a parking spot. My daughter texts from Chicago to say she’s sorry she can’t be a part of the celebration. “Send pictures”, she says. I put down my phone and look back at the hat and my heart is full, Dad’s legacy lives on. Thank you, Dad, for all the precious memories.