Hand-Me-Down Hats and Heritage

Old felt hats, two of them. One is perched high on a shelf at home and I have the other on proud display in my office. They’re dress hats, dark and classy—the kind that might make kids today think of old mobster movies. But when I look at those hats, each with a black and white photo propped up on its brim, I think of the two humble men—my grandpas—who wore them so well.

I’ve mentioned in previous columns that parts of my childhood weren’t kid-friendly. Growing up how I did left me with legacies I’d rather not have experienced: physical and verbal abuse, an unhealthy example for marriage, legalism masquerading as religion. The list goes on. Those are the chains I’ve worked to break, the heritage hand-me-downs that I refuse to hold onto or pass along to my children. But there were other parts of my history that were much better, parts that I think about with a smile and with gratitude.

Specifically, those hats. My grandpas. Grandpa Willimon loved music, I remember. He had a brace that went around his neck to hold a harmonica steady so he could play hands-free, playing an organ at the same time. There’s a story about him (I’m sure it’s embellished) buying a bicycle 50 miles out of town with no way to get it home. People say he rode it the whole way back, grabbing onto vehicles to go faster, just because he wanted to give the bike to his daughter.

Fact or fiction, I didn’t care. I looked at the man like he was a hero. And he really was—not because of the bike ride or the music, but because of what he meant to me, his pipsqueak of a grandson. He made a big deal out of my accomplishments, constantly encouraging me. He cared about my life and pushed me to be better, making me want to be better.

Grandpa Seaborn was my spiritual mentor. Probably the most hilarious man I’ve ever met, he proved that it’s possible to love God without being stale about it. Life to him was always full and fun—just being around the guy made everything seem brighter. Early on, I knew that whatever it was that he’d found, I wanted it too. I still want it.

Well into my adulthood, with both of my grandpas gone, I’ve held onto their hats because I don’t want to let go of their legacies. Much of what’s good in me is a result of the influence they had in my life. It’s impossible for me to forget that. Sometimes when I have an important decision to make and don’t know what to do, I’ll grab one of my grandpa’s hats off the shelf and think, What would he do in this situation? Sometimes I’ll even wear the hat for a little while, remembering.

I want to be the kind of man who is a hero to the person who needs one. I want to encourage my children and my children’s children. I want to laugh with them, to help them find the life that is truly living. There’s work to be done, decisions to make, people to please. But my grandpas taught me to care most about leaving a legacy. So, amid all the hats I wear in life, I hope that one makes it onto somebody else’s shelf someday.