Wayne Michael DeHart (May, 2018)
May 8, 2016.
At a lively gathering of seventeen of her friends, Emma acknowledged their best wishes on her birthday with a proud announcement: “Yes, at 75, I am finally officially ‘old’ and pretty certain I’m still a woman. But I am NOT an old woman – and I’ll thrash the bejeezus out of any one of ya who says I am.” She winked and smiled, then sat her old ass down.
May 8, 2016, was also Mother’s Day.
Emma was not a mother. In fact, she had rarely been in any kind of relationship, much less one where the word “love” or “marriage” earned even a consideration. Some things are just not meant to be, she had reasoned, and for much of her life and for far too long had accepted her solitude with a quiet grace and dignity.
Many, if not most, of those present, however, were mothers and grandmothers. They had other places to be, other places their presence was desired and expected on this sunny Spring afternoon. All agreed beforehand that for them there would be other Mother’s Days and other opportunities to accommodate their loved ones.
Each knew that for Emma there would be no more birthdays, and those aforementioned loved ones would indeed understand their choice that day.
When Emma turned 60, she retired from her long-held clerk’s position at a New Jersey manufacturing facility. She sold her small, modest home and moved, alone, to Florida, and purchased an equally small and modest manufactured home in a senior retirement community. Quiet, and not very social, she fully expected to be immediately cast in the traditional lonely spinster role by her new neighbors, a role she would find neither uncomfortable nor unsettling.
An introvert, she valued her privacy and lack of obligation to “join in” and draw unsolicited and unwanted attention to herself, while at the same time desiring the idyllic safety and serenity offered by such a community. No more snow and ice; much more sunshine and warmth, with green grass and colorful flowers in every direction. No more office schedule, gripes and gossip; much more free time and peace of mind.
And so it was – but for just a few short months.
Then came the anguish and ashes, the fatalities and futility, of September 11, 2001.
For Emma, who had been enjoying the tranquility that she was looking for, and who had become casually acquainted (“Good morning, I’m fine and you? Wonderful, have a great day, etc.”) with a few of her neighbors in “the park”, the sudden tragedy hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. She felt immeasurably lonely, sickened and defeated by the events of the day and those that immediately followed. For the first time ever, she wished she had a husband, a lover, a son, a daughter, or an actual friend to help alleviate the fear, the darkness, the loneliness and the pain in her hurting heart.
For weeks, she grieved alone inside her home, sustained by canned goods and frozen foods, going only to her mailbox, then retreating quickly back inside. Inevitably, some neighbors took note. One of them, a woman of about her age who also lived alone, became the first to tap on her door. At first, Emma fled to her bedroom to “wait it out”, but the concerned visitor only knocked louder and more aggressively, calling out her name. (She actually was saying “Irma”, not having been formally introduced to this new person, and thus relying on neighborhood chatter for the scoop on the soup, as it was called.) Emma soon felt guilty about ignoring the clearly-alarmed and persistent woman and also realized an embarrassing 911 welfare check could result if she remained unresponsive.
She went to the door, opened it, and said, “EMMA. E-M-M-A, Emma, not Irma.”
The two women looked each other in the eye. To the surprise of both, each started smiling, then laughing out loud, almost in rhythm. Neither knew that for Emma, and for those yet to come into her life, it would prove to be a life-changing, transformational moment in time.
As the country slowly regained its footing from the events in New York City, at the Pentagon and across that barren Pennsylvania field, a sense of normalcy returned to her Central Florida mobile home community and the nearby cities and towns. With it emerged a “new” Emma, a woman who came to realize that people DID matter, and that she had deprived herself of a lifetime of the rewards derived from sharing with, and caring about, others. She had always been a good person, a nice person, mind you. Never rude or unfriendly, never deliberately offsetting. Just one of those folks who kept to herself, who celebrated the good and suffered the bad in solitude and silence, friendly but not a friend, cordial but not a confidante, alert but not aware.
Out of a national disaster came a personal rebirth, a steadily-evolving process of socialization into a sense of completing oneself. Emma now wanted every day to count, to matter, to afford opportunity and for that opportunity to be breathed in, held, remembered, then exhaled to make room for the next one, and then the next. The aforementioned neighbor, Regina, had told everyone about her encounter with Emma, asserting that “the newbie is a cool old chick after all.” Soon, everyone greeted her with “IRMA !!” when they saw her (yep, like “NORM” in Cheers), and she absolutely delighted in it. This must be that warm, fuzzy feeling she had heard about all of her life. She liked it, and the neighbors liked her.
It was now early 2006, and Emma/Irma was an active, outgoing, popular, funny (!) and much-valued member of the park community. She wasted neither time nor energy bemoaning those many lost years of simply existing, alone, in a corner or in the shadows. Instead, she was grateful for every new adventurous day in this unforeseen gift of a second chance at a purposeful and meaningful life.
A couple of the women in the park had read about a unique social group of older women named the “Red Hat Ladies” (“Red Hatters”) who belonged to the “Red Hat Society”, a movement that originated with a few over-50 California women flipping their middle digits at the perceived norms of the golden years. They envisioned a long, slow exit filled with fanciful, zany, off-the-wall and devil-may-care adventures. Their signature adornments were red hats (the wilder, the better) and purple garb (still even wilder, still even better).
They sought kindred spirits, near and far. The movement was rooted in friendships and when the train came by, Emma got instantly on board. In fact, she became both the engineer and the conductor for the local chapter.
The aura of Irma had invaded the heart, soul, body and mind of Emma, awakening and energizing each element swiftly and cleanly, spiriting her away from the Long Ago and into the Here and Now. The wise woman understood why the cards said she had to be Emma first in order to become Irma and thus rejected any regret over the lost years.
On the day Emma went shopping for the second time for a brand new oversized and overwhelming red chapeau, she went alone, by design. She had seen many sizes and styles on the internet (“I like this internet thing.” she had commented to Regina a month after the latter had introduced her to the concept of actually having a PC of her own. “It’s like finding Hershey kisses in your bed when you wake up in the morning.”). She knew what she wanted – something large and unadorned, so that she could have words embroidered onto it, rather than go the decorative trimmings route of several fellow red riders.
She found exactly what she wanted, then headed to a tiny storefront stitchery in the next town over. One of the ladies in the park excelled in such work, but ol’ Emma didn’t want to show her cards before the bi-monthly Saturday night Red Hat gathering at the clubhouse. She wrote down the words and described the placement she wanted, painstakingly picked out thread colors, told the wide-eyed young seamstress to “do it to it”, then went to Wendy’s for a burger and a Frosty. Just killin’ time, chillin’ out, bein’ Irma. She returned to the shop two hours later, belly full and anticipation high.
The embroidery work was done. The threads proved to be exactly the right colors, jumping out boldly against the scarlet felt of the wide-brimmed hat. Emma, now just a month shy of her once-dreaded Medicare birthday, was beyond excited – “I feel and act like a kid, too bad I don’t look like one”, she needled herself.
When Saturday evening arrived, Emma put on a purple-striped top and purple-trimmed shorts and practically double-timed to the clubhouse with her hat in a bag. Just a freewheelin’ kid bouncing down the street, anxious to see everyone and share her new treasure.
“The Cat’s in the Hat. The Hat’s in the Bag. Da-da, dee-dee, they’ll look at me.” She sometimes fretted that she had become almost too happy and definitely too silly. Nevertheless, her presence and companionship were always welcomed and no one had ever discouraged or disparaged her lightheartedness. She made people smile, but mostly she wanted to make everyone laugh – men, women, children, puppies and kittens alike.
No one could remember the recluse that had moved into the blue-trimmed home at the bend in the street five years earlier.
Good, she mused, because I don’t remember her either.
This was probably the fifth or sixth time the Red Hat ladies had gotten together to hang out and eat and tell stories and experience the camaraderie of the night. Emma had worn the same bland burgundy hat at each of the previous get-togethers, though several of the ladies had already debuted multiple selections in a wide range of rich and ravishing reds . She had not let on that she would have a new look for this go-around, so naturally when Emma arrived (a tad fashionably late, she admitted to herself), everyone turned to look as she noisily shook her purse upon stepping inside.
“YOU FORGOT YOUR HAT!!”
“No. No, I didn’t.” And up came the bag.
For some oblique reason, she first counted the other women present. Seventeen. Dang. She was hoping for more for the unveiling. Still, enough to determine success or failure.
She moved to the front of the room, once again thoroughly enjoying being the center of attention after so many years of passing through life unnoticed wherever she went. Still, Emma had not become diva-esque, despite her popularity. She sincerely appreciated the friendships and the positive qualities of each of the women she had come to know. Some of them she even trusted with her secrets, though none of the latter proved to be scandalous or “spicy” (to their dismay).
With curious eyes all around, she felt like Shirley MacLaine’s mischievous Irma La Douce rather than Irma La Elder, enticingly turning her back and making a swift bag-to-head movement with one hand while bent forward and holding a small mirror in her other hand. To her pleasant surprise (not really, she had practiced the move about 83 times before leaving home), the hat sat right where it was supposed to without any adjustments.
Still bent over with her back turned, the peanut gallery rolled into high gear – “Whatcha doing down there, looking for a man?” came from the left, and “Hey, the sandwiches are getting stale, Irma” from the right. For the briefest of moments, Emma worried that she was about to lay an egg, and not a golden one.
Up she came, whirring around like a ballerina into a shaky releve’ fifth position, arms outstretched and moving from high to low at her sides, punctuated with a weak and hesitant “TA-DA”!
More silence as everyone moved closer.
Then … laughter, and lots of it, followed this time by a bolder and much more triumphant “TA-DA” from the relieved star of the night.
It had taken a few moments for them to read the words embroidered across the wide front of her so-red and so-floppy hat.
In bright, neon green: “If ya think I’m gorgeous …”
Underneath, in bold yellow/gold: “LAUGH !”.
For an-almost 65 year-old woman, who had always seen and described herself as the ultimate “Plain Jane” (no offense, Jane, if you’re reading this), it was a 3-pointer from 30 feet away from the basket, hitting nothing but net.
It was a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning when trailing by 3 runs.
It was a triple chocolate five-layer cake with an extreme amount of frosting.
It was finding the only seat in the theater with no one on either side at curtain time.
It was outstanding.
It was geriatric genius.
It was, in a word, perfect.
Years passed. The park’s Red Hat Ladies expanded their activities into the local communities, gaining a whimsical notoriety and becoming the envy of their sister groups in the area.
From that night forward, though Emma had to replace the hat a few times due to wear and fading, nothing else about it had changed. The very specific color, the words, the beaming face underneath it, all became etched in the memories of those who delighted in her sense of humor.
As she grew older, the significance of the words grew as well. She had chosen “gorgeous” for a very specific reason. If the word had been “beautiful” or “pretty”, she reasoned, someone might easily miss the point. A smile would be far more likely than a laugh. One could say, “yes, she is beautiful in spirit”, or “beautiful for her age” or “she does have a pretty smile”. Specific to physical appearance, the word “gorgeous” offers no such escape route. She wanted to make them laugh, not simply smile. Thus the outlandish sight of “gorgeous” on the hat of Emma, proudly out in front of her group, always set the tone and the mood. The Red Hat Ladies were there to have fun, to encourage others to have fun, and to give an emphatic thumbs-down to the very idea of growing old gracefully.
And so they did.
Emma didn’t care whether folks laughed WITH her or AT her. As long as they laughed for a moment and forgot their own troubles and turbulence, she was cool with that. The best part, both for her and for them, is that either way no one had to suppress laughter upon reading the hat, no matter which way they were assessing it. No one else knew, or would know, why the next person laughed.
It gave both the mean-spirited and the elitist cover for their patronizing guttural guffaws. For everyone else, it was a reminder that, as Reader’s Digest told us for generations, “laughter (truly) is the best medicine.”
At age 70, on the tenth anniversary of that ill-fated day, Emma finally revealed to Regina that a chance reminder of those 2001 hate-driven events had been the catalyst for that very first “message” hat. Five years earlier, stopped in traffic while out hat-shopping in her Chevy Cavalier, a faded “Remember 9/11” bumper sticker caught her eye and stared back at her, creating an instant juxtaposition of hat and hate in her head. Point made and noted, Emma abruptly shook off the intrusion and drove on home, but resolved in some small way to employ the former to offset the latter.
That night, she sat on her bed and closed her eyes and tried to visualize a “happy hat”. She came up empty until Rod Stewart’s inimitable voice reverberated across the room, ricocheting off the walls, courtesy of her beloved Bose Wave radio. Though she had indeed become quite the social sally by that time, she only shook her ageless booty in the privacy of her home. Off the bed she bounced, dancing and singing/mumbling along to “Da (Do) Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, air mic in hand. (Cool old chick indeed – Regina had nailed it right out of the gate!)
There it was – the awaited lightning bolt. Hearing herself singing the only words she really knew, the title itself, cracked her up. “Me sexy?” It made her laugh out loud. Emma quickly searched her vocabulary for a more appropriate word than “sexy” that would produce the same surprise and yield the same laughter. Thus was born “If ya think I’m gorgeous…” She plotted out the words and crudely sketched the hat on her phone pad. “Yesssss.” Seventeen days later she found just the right hat, visited the stitchery, chewed her burger and chugged her Frosty.
After that disclosure, she asked her friend if she believed that malicious hatred and heartfelt laughter could truly co-exist within someone at a moment in time. Regina first looked away, then down, and said, “Sadly, my dear, I very much think they can, and that it’s actually quite common.” To which Emma replied, with that impish wrinkle-laden grin, “Do you really think anyone, while laughing at the words on my hat, the thread on my head, at THAT moment in time, can simultaneously have thoughts of hate?”
Regina shrugged and tilted her head. “I guess not, short-lived as a moment is. So you win, Irma. You win.” She then gave an acquiescent nod and got up to hug her friend before heading home to a book and a beer. Emma at first just smiled after the door closed. Then she giggled. Soon she was howling with laughter in her kitchen.
“We won!” Emma and Irma had made their point together … as one. “WE, one!”
Shortly after Labor Day weekend of 2015, Emma came home from her visit to the doctor. She sat down on the concrete steps and stared into the distance. Emma wanted to cry and for Regina, or any of her neighbors, to see her and come over, but no one did.
The tears never came. Not that day or any day thereafter. They had all been shed before she moved south. No one ever saw her cry in New Jersey, but cry she did. More than anyone should. And now, she wanted to, but couldn’t. “Didn’t win today, did ya”, she muttered.
Gut-punched, the woman rose from the stoop and went inside, into her bedroom, and retrieved the hat from the closet shelf. She pulled it down tight onto her head, and at 74 years and 4 months young, pulled off a faultless pirouette, held it, looked into the mirror, and said aloud, “Gorgeous you are, kid, TA-DA!”
And since she couldn’t cry, she did what everyone else did when they beheld that sight – she laughed.
In time, almost everyone in the park became aware that her cancer would soon be the victor in the war that consumed her from within. Nevertheless, Emma and Irma combined to fight and win many battles in the months that followed. “They” did not give in easily, as Emma would have done fifteen years earlier, choosing instead to turn up the music, mute the pain and not just endure, but persevere.
Emma wore the signature red hat to that 75th birthday gathering on May 8, 2016, and yes, everyone laughed one more time, just as she had hoped. Weak though she was, she went full-blown theatrical, making the most of that final spotlight, that sacred moment in time. Before toasting her best friend, Regina joked, “Enough already, Irma, you ham, now sit your old ass down”. That’s when a frail but still saucy Emma spoke her own sassy words, saluted her Friend and thanked her friends, and ended with a feigned Scarlett O’Hara swoon down onto the chair.
Thirty-three days later, on June 10, Emma passed quietly in hospice, deep in the night.
Her red hat, which Regina had lovingly placed by her side when she first lapsed into involuntary silence and stillness, caught the eye of each staff member that looked in on her through those final days and hours. It never went unnoticed and it never was moved, much less touched, as they tended to her unspoken needs.
When the night nurse made her last rounds, Emma was lifeless.
Her face was locked in a smile.
The hat was on her head.
“TA-DA” , indeed.
The nurse looked around the room, turned back to the sight before her, froze the moment in time, and then laughed out loud.
Emma would have been pleased; mission accomplished, one last time.