New Year’s Derby Hats

As a part-time writer – and one who doesn’t claim to remember all the grammar rules from, let’s say, a few years ago while sluffing back in a hard plastic school chair – I’m fascinated by what comes out of my fingers sometimes. Just me, though. You don’t need to be. Only because I never paid a gnat’s attention to the instructions given out by well-qualified teachers … that’s why. Chief among them, my dad. He was on staff at the high school where I attended, but I never had him for English or Literature class. I would have traded forty minutes, five days a week for the constant gerund, lie-lay, dangling modifier meerkat, eye-rolling moments he flinged at us around the dinner table. Moments I remember only because the rest of us at the table dug our utensils deeper into mom’s daily casserole every time dad dissected dinner dialect.

It wasn’t just over peas and carrots, or noodle dishes prepared ahead. Breakfast presented its own paternal parental problems, parenthetically writing, here. Dad had a schedule. Of course he did. Up out of bed at 5:50 a.m. … and so forth. Mom, deciding early on not to accept a teaching job within the same school district in order to raise three little angels, was expected to prepare oatmeal, a glass of O.J., coffee, and toast. Mixing it up once in a while with some Raisin Bran cereal, mom really didn’t mind. Routine. Both of them in that comfortable space where dad had expectations and mom, being her wonderful self, went along with the plan.

Pre-dawn problems made an appearance along side angelic Doug. I, the ever-so non-agreeable child of the three, couldn’t stand routine. Well, let’s play all the flash cards here. By the time middle school came into my life, dad decided work came first – not studies … not music … not girls … not fun, etc … I respected my dad and pushed forward with all his wishes. Anything to make a buck – in his eyes – I labored on. Tiring as it was, I dad-did. As any young boy-man would wish to do, I rebelled. Not in a nasty way, of course. To this day, that’s not my nature. I’m a pianist, musician, and as much as I have an aversion toward the phrase, “people person” … that duo best describes me – and it sooo fit my mom. We were two of the same.

Dawning on me, mornings had to change. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. The days and weeks were wearing me down with work. I had work-a-day syndrome before my eighteenth birthday. Life wasn’t fun anymore. Mom looked bored doing the same thing over … and over. That same brick building, only a ten minutes walk away, could just disappear in the fog it always had lingering over it when mom drove me there. Yes, I insisted she drive me even though I could walk. Tired. Just exhausted. And, looking back, she was to. Routine, for us, was exhausting. Work. Rules. Wearisome.

So, the derby hats had to come out. Were these her idea, or mine? Not sure, but I do know we did the routine prior to their appearance on dad’s morning stage. Laurel & Hardy. Mom & I. Ironic, this use of routine. We turned the situation around to our benefit. We had to.

Leading up to this dramatic moment, dad stayed focused on his breakfast fare. His routine needed to be steady, predictable … as was his life to that moment. Staying on schedule is what we love about him to this day, actually. Since March, he’s done remarkably well being tossed about in an ocean of unpredictability. Without mom since 2012, he’s been through another death of a wife, some health issues, and as an octogenarian, is experiencing the usual mental issues associated with that decade of life. All that aside, a cantankerous teenager and his brilliant, bored mom didn’t look ahead that much. What we saw was a overly-grammared, stressed, casserole-killing, breakfast-timetable teacher who needed some shaking up. We were the perfect cereal killers for the moment.

Upon our heads sat the derbys a bit askew. “I don’t, Stanley.” … “What do you think, Ollie?”, began our routine as we entered the off-color, late 70’s styled kitchen where dad sat at the head of a slightly oblong, wobbly table. Not lifting his head even one, we got multiple degrees worth of grammatical tongue lashings from a guy who – by my best guess here – wasn’t in any mood for such shenanigans. Oh, and I think all the subjects and verbs agreed, btw. I don’t know what was worse: his language, or not recognizing our fine derby hats. We knew the routine well – having rehearsed it during leisure times prior. Fine tuning with the hats was a mere inconvenience. Adding the breakfast show for dad’s expected pleasure was a bonus feature. Yep. All work, no play.

Mom drove me to school that day. The school barely peeked through the dense fog once again. Dad was already in his classroom. He walked every day from our house – down the narrow, paved path through a wooded area – making sure to be one of the first teachers in his classroom. On schedule. I, of course, ran late into the band room late with my trombone case in hand, unfinished homework under my arm, and most likely a bad attitude. Life as an overworked teenaged who wasn’t having any fun.

It’s the last day of 2020 and I bet this is another day in the life of US. We’re upset teenagers who just haven’t had any fun lately because of a 2020 parent. Every day I get up anymore, I expect to see that dad of my teenage years sitting at my breakfast table. What’s he going to make me do today that I don’t want to do? What schedule am I going to be glued to prohibiting me from having joy in my life? Why did the parent I loved so much and connected with have to die? Where is that happiness and derby hat routine?


Another year is coming to a close. 365 days of missing my mom. Those derby hat days – and moments with her – are gone. It was only 30 seconds during a mundane, routine morning when we tried to break up another boring day. We understood the importance of work and responsibility. We also knew how important it was to have fun. To relax. To play. To throw pie in the face of stress and realize present progressive tense isn’t a state of being – it’s just a grammar rule.

Dad stops by my concession trailer almost every day and sits off to the side. I ask him grammar questions as I … work. Can’t avoid work. Ironic, huh? Forty years later, … in a kitchen of my own choosing, dad is relaxed, I’m stressed trying to fill orders to stay on a schedule. Maybe the lessons my dad tried to teach me – outside the classroom I never sat in – made sense after all. Nonetheless, I avoid lie-lay and who-whom as much as possible and any discussions about dangling participles are off limits.

Just the other day, dad said, “It’s my choosing, not me choosing…” to a customer. Fortunately, this was a good friend of mine. Rules and routines keep dad going. I’m so fortunate these two words supported him this year. They’ll serve him well as the calendar flips over tonight into a new year. My new year will begin as this one ends – missing mom and our derby hats.

It’s not just those hats. It’s everything about her and a life overflowing with fun, joy, and happiness. I know this year’s been tough on all of us with the rules. Our routines turned out to be one big mess as we meandered through lockdowns and virtual unrealities. Some did well, some struggled. A really hard year.

To say a simple turn-over of a calendar will bring this all to an end would be a fool’s promise. We have some work to do before 2020 can be behind us. As optimistic as my mom was, even she would admit two simple derby hats and a 5-minutes routine wouldn’t tamp down the long-term tension built up to this point. What she would do, however, is give us each a hug – one by one – and say, “It’s going to be o.k.”, smile, and ask if we want a chocolate chip cookie baked fresh with Crisco … followed up with a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Then she’d invite all of us to a humbly decorated, streamer basement to welcome in the new year. A new 2021 she won’t be here to enjoy, once again. I’ll put on an invisible derby hat in her honor and say, “What do you think, Ollie?” then call dad to wish him a Happy New Year.

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