The moment I saw it I knew it was mine.
The vendor’s stall was a few yards away from where I stood under an awning to avoid the early morning sun. I looked across the ancient cobblestones, the medieval buildings ringing a seashell shaped Plaza only slightly crowded with tourists and local shoppers. I was in Siena, Italy. The Plaza was the famous Palio, a Marketplace where biannually the 800 year old tradition of a unique and world famous horse race takes place. The race lasts only 3 minutes. Hundreds of horsemen come from all over the world, galloping at incredible speeds and risking serious injury, to capture the crown, the adoration of the crowd, and a day long festival in their honor. Legend has it that in the early morning you can hear the echos of the pounding of the hooves and screaming of the riders – centuries of sound.
On this morning, I walked across the ancient path to capture my crown. A straw hat.
I had never experienced anything like the feeling that overtook me that morning. An attraction so strong, as if a magnet was pulling me, to an inanimate object that until then I had never wanted or needed. I nodded to the vendor and gently removed the hat from its peg.
I did not like hats. When I was a little girl it was considered stylish for a woman to wear a hat and wrist length white gloves whenever she went anyplace special.
My mother insisted that we do just that. She had several hats and looked very pretty in them. I had two hats and hated them. I felt dumpy and stupid and vowed never to wear one once I got older. And I never did.
I placed the hat on my head, knowing, without reason, that it would suit me perfectly. The crown settled comfortably, the brim exactly the right width, enough to provide shade while still looking pretty. The straw was just the right color and the handmade design intricate but not overdone. The vendor smiled and nodded, and I paid without any attempt to bargain, violating every rule of the Marketplace.
The morning was to be three hours of leisure time, then meeting up with the tour group for a late lunch. I looked forward to time on my own. No need to compromise about which places to visit or how long to stay. No distracting conversation. I could just roam at will, camera at the ready, exploring the side streets and capturing the daily life of the residents of the town. And so I started out, choosing a direction at random and ready for adventure, my new straw hat a welcome and practical addition as the sun was already turning my face red.
Siena was incredibly beautiful that morning; the thousand year old homes an unusual shade of orange contrasted vividly against the sky a blue I had never seen before but would see over and over again in Italy. This was the place after all that gave Crayola the color Burnt Siena for one of its most popular crayons. Other colors seemed new as well. The faded brown of the heavy, scarred wooden doors, the brightness of the fresh vegetables displayed outside the neighborhood grocery shop, and the multi hued shawls the women draped carefully around their shoulders – all were colors I could name – but had never seen. Soon I realized that it wasn’t just the colors that were so vivid. Each of my senses was inexplicably heightened. Sounds – children playing, footsteps on the cobblestones, birds calling, awnings and shutters creaking open, water splashing in the fountains – all combined to create a symphony composed just for me.
Smells – Espresso brewing, crusty breads baking, the sourness of old puddles- different and exotic. It was as if I had stepped onto another planet!
Three hours later, I began the walk back to the cafe where I would meet my tour friends for lunch. I strolled leisurely, noticing that my gait had changed. My short, stubby legs seemed longer, the limbs lean. My arms were longer too and swung gracefully at my sides. I moved with a new found confidence, a ballet dancer on the streets of Siena. Passing a shop window I noticed a pretty woman, red hair streaked with gold from the sun, green eyes sparkling, and an easy smile that was generous and invited a smile in return. I looked closely and was stunned…the pretty woman was me!
I was the first one to arrive at the meeting place. Nick, our tour guide, was pacing impatiently as usual. He nodded a greeting and looked at me, a question in his eyes. He was 6 feet 2, had the longest and best legs in Italy, sandy hair, bright blue eyes and a Roman nose – the perfect mixture of his German mother and Italian father. He spoke 5 languages, was aloof and controlling, rarely smiled, but always watched out for us and made sure we saw the real Italy as well as the tourist spots. He loved his country, especially Tuscany – the place he called “the sweet hills” and where we would spend the next few days. It would, he said, transform us. He was in his mid 30’s…I was 48…and had a carefully hidden crush on him reminiscent of my early teens.
“What has happened to you this morning, Carole?” he asked, an unusual softness in his voice. “I bought this straw hat in the Palio, I replied, and it has been a perfect morning”! “Ah, a hat” and he smiled enigmatically. Gently taking my hands, he pulled me closer, inspected me, then kissed me on both cheeks and on the forehead. “Bellissima”, he said. “You have become a lovely Italian woman”. I was astounded and speechless. At that moment, Cinderella had nothing on me!
I spent 10 weeks in Italy. When the tour ended after 18 days I traveled the country alone, stopping in places off the beaten path, meeting not only Italians but people from all over the world. The straw hat had become a necessity – taken off only in the evening or on the rare occasions it rained. And the transformation Nick had predicted continued. I learned to enjoy the sound of my own laughter and felt, for the first time, completely comfortable in my own skin. There was a softness about me. Gone were the hard edges designed to keep people at a safe distance. Most of all was feeling that I was seeing things as if for the first time. I was in love with life!
What was it, I wondered, that was responsible for this different Carole who emerged, unexpectedly, from the “sweet hills”? The warmth of the sun, the blue of the sea, the sights and sounds, food and people? I was no stranger to the pleasures of travel. It was never like this. There was only one possible answer…it was magic. It was the straw hat!
The Straw Hat. It taught me about beauty, gentleness, kindness, contentment and awareness. It made it all right – more than that – natural – to feel womanly and sensual. I was alive! My world was timeless.
I arrived at the Philadelphia airport on a dreary Tuesday afternoon. The flight had been easy. The straw hat had rested on my lap. I put the key in the door to my house. I was home.
It took several days to achieve re-entry. Gradually, I unpacked the few treasures I had purchased, took my pictures to be developed, read the journal I had kept faithfully, and touched base with friends. The straw hat was placed with care on the top shelf of my closet. I tried to wear it a few times, but it looked out of place, even at the pool, and I felt foolish wearing it. Little by little, the magic disappeared. Life returned to normal. But it was fine. There was plenty of time for more magic, I thought.
There have been several occasions since then when I have felt its return. An achingly beautiful concert featuring cellist Yo Yo Ma. A three day sailing on the Chesapeake with a man I loved. Five hummingbirds at the feeder at once. The first time I lit the fireplace in my new apartment on a perfect snowy day. Simple things. Few and far between. But I always recognized their specialness and tucked away their memory with those of Straw Hat Italy.
The past few months have been unusually and painfully nostalgic for me, and I find myself yearning for the magic. How foolish I was to think it was timeless! I am 72 now, and my life has been tempered with the death of friends, significant health problems, financial concerns, and questions about my future. Normal, I suppose, for many women as they confront growing older. I will deal with them. Surprisingly, it is not these things that cause me the greatest pain. It is the loss of magic.
As I was making my bed the other day, I glanced up at the oil painting that hangs above the headboard. It is one of my prized possessions, bought when I was in my 30’s at a gallery in a small beach town and costing more money than I had a right to spend. It is called “Girl on Bayberry Dunes” and I fell in love with her.
She has long red hair, wears a blue and white softly folded dress and is bending over to pick the berries. The sky is azure and the water beyond the dunes that incredible Italian blue. She is wearing a straw hat. It caught my breath! I had never made the connection before. But the magic was mine long before I went to that marketplace in Siena…I just didn’t know it!
Is it possible to have the magic now? To feel sensual and womanly, full of life and joy? You rarely read about older women who possess these qualities. There are many articles and pictures of women who amaze their mostly male authors by being “sexy and desirable after 50”. Movie stars and models and others with time and money to stop the ravages of time. But what of sensuality? The ability to enjoy the wonders and fullness of days and nights long after the body itself has given up youth? Shouldn’t that be timeless?
Oh, how I want those feelings now! Age can take away physical attractiveness and mobility. But please, please not the magic! Those moments when things are so beautiful it hurts! When I am so happy it feels like my heart is going to burst through my chest! When contentment and peace of mind lull me to sleep.
When I draw my last breath, please let me be wearing my Straw Hat.