04/29/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Aunts George, Johnny and Bill (and the Hat in My Attic)


Aunt Johnnie, long before I knew her.

In our New Jersey attic, there is precisely one hat, standing in immense and ghostly isolation beneath a tent of blue Indian gauze, its custom-made hat-stand crafted by a friend in Up-country South Carolina about 20 years ago.

The hat itself was made in England, by Anne Karol, and purchased for me from a "ladies'" shop, Village Fashions, which occupied a place of honor on Pendleton, South Carolina's town square from 1979 till 2000, and was run by my neighbors, Pat and Harry Evans. Many of us who taught at Clemson University in the 1990s favored conservative, floral dresses and monochrome "outfits" purchased from Village Fashions. The hat, though floral in theme, is anything but "conservative."

I wore it only once in public, to the wedding of a fellow Clemson professor, and the seemingly unlikely beau with whom she fell in love at a Western dude ranch, married, and has lived with happily ever after since. Only in the '90s could one (I) still pull off wearing a hat as large, and as daft, to a high-summer wedding in small-town, Presbyterian America. Of course, the British, and certain "church ladies" still wear such hats left, right, and center, but mine will probably now be consigned to the attic, wherever my husband and I live (though I may be mistaken: in my 70s or 80s, perhaps I will once again throw caution to the winds).

That I have such a hat at all -- some three feet in diameter, made of fine Carludovica palmate, bordered in iridescent mint ribbon and festooned with ashes-of-lilac flowers -- necessitated first having "the idea of the hat," and that idea was planted in, and on, my head in childhood.

My mother wore hats from her own girlhood in Townville, South Carolina and on, till the very end of her life. She wore hats everywhere. In 1950s Los Angeles, in the circles in which my mother and her friends moved, and in the California sunshine, hats were a necessity, as well as a complex statement as old as the images of pale-faced Egyptian royalty; as were gloves, and other clothing meant to preserve a woman's skin from aging. My, how we have changed; and changed again, since those years.

The hats of the 1950s, and of the upper middle class in general on America's West Coast, were very different from the hats of 1930s and 40s South Carolina, however. My mother's California hats were small and sleek, for the most part, and featured veils. In her shadow, out there in the sun, I myself wore (and was photographed in) small straw boaters ringed with bright flowers, a navy bowler trimmed with red cherries, and a sailor's cap (for all athletic events at Pasadena Country Day School).



My blue bowler and Aunt Bill, the flapper, in a "headache band."

Even children habitually wore hats (and the girls, white gloves) in my childhood, though only for church and "dress-up." At play, we gave ourselves over to the sun, and everyone went shirtless till age five.

Given my early years out West, which I have compared elsewhere to the rarefied childhood of the little Buddha, I could not imagine the threadbare poverty out of which my elegant mother had emerged, and from which she had fled, in Depression-era Carolina.

We flew back to the South rarely, picked up at the airport in Atlanta by my mother's sister, Inez, who lived with her husband, my Uncle Clay, and their two sons, my cousins, Randy and Larry, in Spartanburg, not really too far from where my maternal grandparents lived, all their lives, in tiny, rural Townville.

I never remember spending a night in Townville over the course of those brief visits. Instead, we stayed either in Spartanburg, with Aunt Inez, or in Seneca, with Aunt Bill.

Aunt Bill. I think I must not be alone among Southern women of a certain age in having three women relatives known by men's names, and this was not a matter of the British ambiguity of "Shirley" or "Leslie" or "Evelyn." This was a matter of fierce choice on the part of all three of my aunts: Great Aunt Johnnie, the wife of a mule-trader, who was a "Correspondent" (read: gossip columnist) for the Seneca Journal; Aunt Bill, my mother's eldest sister, originally named Willie Sue, as family legend has it, after one of her father's old flames; and my great-aunt-by-marriage, and Inez's mother-in-law, George.

Bill was, I believe, damned if she was going to go by a name such as "Willie Sue," and we nieces and nephews always called her "Aunt Bill" or, more usually, just "Bill."


My grandmother, Abalena Smith, and her sister, Johnnie.

My pro-golfer and retired physics professor cousin Randy is currently home recovering from a triple-laminectomy and, so, barred from the greens for a while, during which time he has proven willing to chat by phone and at length with female relatives.

So, I asked him, last week, how George came to be called George.

"Well, my Grandfather Pleas -- that would be Pleasant Mahaffey -- was a great kidder," said my cousin, my elder by 15 years, who knows a lot more than I about our extended family's life-before-my time in Townville, before the advent of our relative prosperity.

"I was about ten years old, in around 1946," said Randy, "when Pleas took me aside and told me, 'Go over there and call your Grandmother Alice 'George' . . . and see what she does."

Apparently, someone named George had been an early beau of Alice's, and Pleas was prepared to enjoy putting the needle in his wife via their grandson. What he didn't bank on was Alice's reaction.
"She adopted the name right there and then," said Randy, "and was never known as anything else but 'George.'"

Southern women: you do not want to mess with us, with or without hats.

When I came to know George, she and Aunt Johnnie, both of whom were born in the late 19th century, and never truly entered the 20th, rarely emerged from their darkened sitting rooms, except to attend church. Aunt Johnnie, who lived next door to her niece, Aunt Bill, in Seneca, was a stout, powerful woman who had great trouble releasing a tiny grand-niece from her floral embrace. I was made to call upon her, but could never wait to get away.

Aunt George I never saw out-of-doors, but visited, briefly, in her bare, pot-bellied-stove-heated dining room in Townville, where she sat adjacent her African-American companion of many decades, Mariah, in companionable silence. Mariah would be the only Black guest at my 1972 wedding, which was held in a tiny Episcopal church in Seneca. I visited Mariah regularly, but was a bit intimidated by George who, by the time I knew her, was silent, shapeless, long, long a widow, and worn out by time and hard work. I would give anything now to know more about her.

It was truly by chance, after her death, that I was sent, by my mother and her sister, to the two big houses in Townville -- those of the Bolemans and the Mahaffeys -- in order to see if any family treasures were being left behind in the crumbling Victorian homes about to be sold.

On an upper story in George's house, I came upon a flock of immense church hats, displayed, under paper drapes, on beds, chairs, and dressers.

I remember being alone in the room at the time, wondering how and when Aunt George, she of the severely cropped white hair and featureless face, might have worn these confections.

This past week, I learned from my cousin that the hats were not George's at all, but had belonged to, and been abandoned by, a couple or a maiden lady renting the top-floor bedrooms. Lodgers. In Townville. It was something I could not have imagined.

Randy also told me that George had, at one point, both churned butter for neighbors, preparing pats for sale, and collected hens' eggs to sell in little baskets.

George must have been laboring, in her 60s and 70s, just a floor below the congregation of fanciful hats in her lodgers' upstairs rooms.

My early years in California were so privileged as to have been like something out of a dream, and my mother kept Townville's realities and privations a secret from me until she and my father returned to the South for good in the late 1960s. She was unhappy about the move, and I now understand so much better why it distressed her.

Looking back from this vantage, I see what an island of illusion the 1950s, '60s and '70s were for America's post-war middle class. So many had escaped -- by an inch -- so very much, and they imagined, back then, that they, and their children, had escaped for good. Those who had fought in World War II, or who, like my father, had survived tuberculosis just before the advent of antibiotics, wanted nothing so much as to forget the war and the Depression that preceded it.

My parents' generation may have been the last to imagine that life would, in fact, become better and better; that humanity would wax ever more enlightened, and that justice and wisdom would prevail. Theirs was the mythology that colored my early ideas of the world, and of the future.

Now, I see human history as one of small and larger cycles. The optimism of the '50s would not last; the middle class, as I knew it early on, would be brought to its knees; the Millennials are now fortunate to be "lodgers" in their own parents' houses, or to have jobs of any sort to look forward to.

And I ponder the beautiful, fey hat in my attic, and the beautiful hats left behind, and sold with the Mahaffey house (and then, presumably, tossed out by the new buyers).

In the least of our possessions such history resides, especially if the women of a family -- who are the traditional stewards of history -- will treasure and explicate and repeat it.