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  • Writer's pictureSam Payne

Bella's Hats

I don’t know why I even said yes to this, but when I was sixteen years old, a lady down the street asked if I’d come and help her with a church project. Her name was Bella, and she was perhaps the oldest person in my neighborhood. I thought maybe she hoped I’d come and clean out some rain gutters or something. But when I went over to her house, she invited me into her living room and told me what I’d be doing. She had created a show – a show, that she was preparing for the next meeting of the church ladies group, a month away. And the show was called “Bella’s Hats.” And in this show, an old woman named Bella was sitting in a living room with an enormous hat rack filled with hats saved from the span of her whole life. And one by one, she would take a hat down and sigh and reminisce out loud about some memory associated with the hat.

But Bella thought the show might get a little boring if it consisted only of a woman talking about her hats, and so each memory associated with each hat would also be associated with a dance number – a dance popular at one time or another during the life of this character. So, for example, Bella would take down a hat that reminded her of dancing with a handsome soldier during the war, and somebody pretending to be the soldier would come out onto the stage, and somebody pretending to be Bella would come out onto stage, and they’d dance the dance in her memory, while Bella stood to the side gazing in a state of reverie at the hat she’d pulled down from the rack. And then, at the end of the show, this character, Bella, who had ostensibly taken all these old hats out to give to goodwill would decide that the memories brought on by the hats were too lovely and too important, and in the end, she keeps all the hats, and that’s the show.

And that’s what she decided she needed my help with. Every memory, every hat, every dance in the show was somehow about a boy and a girl. And she wanted me to play the boy. She wanted me to learn all these dances, and go to the performance of the show in front of the church ladies group and perform in “Bella’s Hats,” the epic stage show.

I would very much rather have cleaned out rain gutters. I am no dancer. Anyone who has ever known me knows that. But I asked who would be playing the girl – my dance partner in every scene. And she told me that her granddaughter, Nanette, would be playing that part. Also that we’d be rehearsing every Tuesday and Thursday for a month.

And, well, I agreed to do it. And maybe that’s because she had a picture of her granddaughter Nanette on the piano in her living room. Maybe that’s what clinched it for me.

Well, it was a month of ups and downs. I learned the cha-cha, and the waltz, and I learned the tango, and when I say I learned these things, I mean I got so that I could do them all the way through without falling down. And just when I thought it might be okay, and that I might be okay at it, and that, after all, Nanette was probably feeling all the same misgivings as I was, after all, we were both just teenagers who didn’t know anything, I went over to Nanette’s house to pick her up for Rehearsal one day and saw, over the fireplace in her house, an enormous painting of Nannette herself, in a ballet outfit, bending gracefully to tie her ballet slipper, and when I saw that painting and told her that I didn’t know she danced, she said “Yeah, I’ve been dancing since I was four.” And so there I was, all alone again, having learned that Nanette, who I had all this time thought was probably as nervous as I was, was actually a ringer, an old ballet pro who was probably laughing at my every step on the dance floor.

And for sure, I would have preferred to clean out the rain gutters.

As it turns out, though, Nanette was patient and kind with me, even if her grandmother sometimes got impatient as I stumbled around her living room, trying to figure these dances out. And the lesson that Bella hoped to communicate to the Church Ladies’ group: that memories are important and worth talking about, and worth saving artifacts about, and worth making shows about, well, I kind of bought that. I believed it. I believe it still today. I never got much better at dancing, but I survived the show, and Nanette and I stayed friends for a season, and I think I wound up enjoying it a lot more than I would have enjoyed cleaning out rain gutters.

And now, I, myself, have a closet shelf full of hats – hats purchased as souvenirs of ball games and music festivals and boy scout trips, hats that help me remember good times and bad. None of them are as fancy as the hats on Bella’s long-ago hat rack. In fact, most of them are just ball caps. But if any of them can bring me back to days on the sidelines or in the mountains or in the audience, or even tango-ing across the floor of Bella’s living room with Nanette, trying to look a little less nervous than I felt, well, then, they’re doing their job. And if you ask me, it’s a job worth doing.

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