Every November 1, I engage in an unusual ritual. As the Halloween decorations loom, I uncover a turkey on L.A. — and the world. not live bird but gravy knitted chullo (aka an Andean ear-flap hat), crowned with a cartoon-looking, pilgrim-hat-wearing turkey, with flappy knit feathers that bounce off my every step.
It’s an absolutely ridiculous piece of headgear that I make a point of wearing in the wild — driving to work, driving to work, that sort of thing — as often as possible until after Thanksgiving. I started wearing it seven years ago to please my father as he battled metastatic melanoma that wouldn’t claim his life two weeks after Thanksgiving.
Despite the somber backstory, sporting the goofy lid is actually a delightful tribute to my dad, whose sense of humor was known to those who frequented our family’s Vermont country store. He seemed able to connect meaningfully with anyone who walked through the door, from the kids to his retired great-grandparents.
Wearing a turkey hat around L.A. somehow seemed to make a similar connection—from parking-lot attendants to “Hey, turkey man!” shouted from behind the counter at a Grand Central Market taqueria. From afar, I usually respond with a smile or a thumbs-up. In closer proximity, I would lean in and whisper in a conspiratorial tone: “Did you see the turkey on the hat wearing the hat?”
I’ve always enjoyed those conversations, but this year, in season seven I’ve cut the hen on my pat and ventured out into the world like a no-joke punchline, the fleeting moments of feeling are even more meaningful. A way to truly connect safely with strangers in an environment where social distancing is the norm and smiles are hidden by face masks. It’s like hugging in a hat, a way to spread holiday cheer across a series of year-end holidays. That realization got me thinking about the circumstances that led to the annual wearing of the turkey loin—and my dad’s role in it.
I impulsively bought a Peruvian-made hat in Sedona, Ariz., four days before Thanksgiving 2013.
I was partly taken by its comical look – eyes woven in an enduring expression of wonder, a black cap sitting precariously on his head, a woven cattle fluttering from under his knitted beak. and a fringed crown of autumn-colored tail feathers rose out behind like a peacock feather. As someone whose personal feathers have long flown the coop, I also knew that the knit cap with its dangling pom-pomade earflaps was a great fit for Sedona’s surprisingly cool (at least that time of year) climate. will provide a measure of insulation against.
While the hat certainly turned heads the first Thanksgiving, it didn’t impress with much meaning. That came the following November, when I got a call from my family in the past that I needed to help move my father, who had been diagnosed with melanoma, from Vermont to Boston for a consultation. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, The turkey hat, which had just been tossed from storage along with other Thanksgiving accoutrements (turkey-themed cocktail napkins and a DVD of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”) found its way into my hastily packed bag, And off I went. It was with me when the five-hour drive to Boston and back metastasized into the emergency gauntlet of MRIs, doctor visits, and my father’s totally unexpected two-week stay. Brigham and Women’s Hospital,
It was during this time that the magic of the turkey hat slowly unfolded to me. I wore it in and out of the hospital every day for those dark two weeks, knowing it would bring a smile to my dad’s face. What I didn’t expect affected hospital staff and other patients in the same way I’d see in hallways or in elevators. My first “Hey, Turkey Man!” The call-out came just a few days after I was walked by a patient in a hospital gown who was standing his IV down the hallway for a little exercise. I would pass him in the hallway half a dozen times in that visit.
On each occasion, he would break into a wide smile and show me the thumb with the hand that wasn’t stabilizing his portable IV rig. In a few days I would put it on my father’s head as he was being rolled into the bowels of the hospital for one of the endless rounds of imaging. In those days, both he and the hospital staff accompanying him would return with a smirk. No one in our family would consider those two weeks to be anything but a terrifying emotional roller coaster, but damn it if cramming a turkey-sized pile of hand-woven acrylics over my head makes it just a little bit Doesn’t feel any less sad. We are fast approaching the death of our father.
Although I certainly would have seen a lot of strangers react to the hat, I was so focused on trying to fix my weak and failing father that I didn’t think much about it – until I put it behind Left when we wheeled our father down for another round of X-rays.
“Where’s the Turkish hat?” Asked an X-ray technician I didn’t think I’d ever seen before. I replied with a jolt.
“You should continue to wear it because it’s exciting the people here,” he said.
Taking that advice to heart, once we were back in the room, I grabbed that turkey hat by earflaps and patted it on my head, where it would stay (but for my daily shower) until the time I was in Boston. I wore it when I kissed my father’s forehead to see what happened the last time. I wore it when my sister drove me to the airport, we were both crying uncontrollably, on my way back to L.A. a few days before Thanksgiving. And I wore it as I put together my family back home and sadly faced the cooked turkey and all the trimmings in here.
When my father died — at home, surrounded by family — on December 10, 2014, I was devastated, but I was also grateful that I got to spend time with him and make him laugh when I had little. Laugh about what was precious.
The next year, when November 1 rolled around and I opened the box of Thanksgiving decorations, the first thing I noticed was the turkey hat. I grabbed it by the pom-poms and pulled it over my head, and memories of years ago flooded back. I wasn’t quite sure, that first year, that I wanted to wear the hat in the world again, worried that it might somehow cloud memories or reduce magic.
Now, seven years later, I realize those were unnecessary worries. Every time I snap on that turkey hat, I see my father’s smile in strangers’ smiles. I feel his eyes move to the spectacle of me lumbering through a Rite Aid parking lot with my woven-cloth-covered noggin, and I hear his distinct voice in exclamations of “Turkey Man.”
This time of year is stressful for everyone and can also be painful for those who have lost loved ones. So, if I can ease a tiny bit of that pain — even momentarily — by walking around LA looking like a one-man Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, it’s well worth the effort.