Rows of hats, spread out across Francener Pressley's living room couch ... a cocoa brown felt hat with leopard print silk bow and trim ... a brighter-than-Kelly-green straw trimmed with brass studs ... a flat-brimmed fur with a mink crown and a billowy fox brim ... and a perfectly white, wide-brimmed straw, trimmed with swirls of tulle anchored with big pearls.
The white one belonged to Laura Ann Wilson, Mrs. Pressley's only daughter, who died three years ago.
"She loved hats like that, that style," her mother said.
To black churchwomen such as Mrs. Pressley, fancy hats make a woman feel properly dressed.
Gloves might be gone, but not hats, said Dr. Rosa Williams, pastor of Everfaithful Missionary Baptist Church. She wears hats every Sunday that she's not preaching in the pulpit.
At one time, a woman wasn't seen without a hat, especially if she went to church, out to dinner or a theater, the pastor said. "It was a touch of class."
Customers at Wanda's Boutique on Laney-Walker Boulevard can find hats by European designers priced from $150 to $200. Pastels came in big this season, along with yellow, silver, purple and a certain shade of green, owner Wanda Walker said.
"Believe me, black women want new hats every year. They don't want to wear a hat twice - they will, but they don't like to. They will wear it to another church" first, Mrs. Walker said.
People think that if a woman is part of God's kingdom, she should dress accordingly, she said. "If God owns it all, you should look like a king's daughter, a child of the king."
Rosa Griffin's mother was another hat lover. Some of her hats were handmade and came from California and Charleston, S.C., Ms. Griffin said. "The last one she wore was a light Panama straw, like white ivory."
Ms. Griffin likes hats and buys them herself. She enjoys winter whites and also black for winter when "you need something to wear" to keep the cold out, she said.
Mrs. Pressley still remembers the raves she got the first time she wore the white, wide-brimmed hat that was her daughter's. Friends told her, "Oh, Francener, what a pretty hat."
But wearing the hat was hard. For seven years her daughter had cancer. For five years it was in remission. When it re-emerged, Ms. Wilson went back and forth from hospital to home. Her mother would pack a bag and stay with her. "She was my only girl," said Mrs. Pressley, a mother of three sons.
When her daughter went back to teach her special education pupils at Craig Elementary School, Mrs. Pressley would go by to see if she was sick from the chemotherapy or if she needed anything.
She let Ms. Wilson use her fur hat and matching fox and beaver coat. "I let her use the hat and the coat because her blood was very thin, and when they started with chemo she would just stay cold all the time," Mrs. Pressley said.
Ms. Wilson knew her mother would mourn when she died but told her: "Mourn for a while, but go on with your life. You put your life on hold for seven years for me. Go on with your life."
Since Ms. Wilson's death at age 43, two of her daughters, Inez Wilson, 24, and Michelle Wilson, 19, have moved in with their grandmother.
The younger women, typical of their generation, don't like hats - "they like hairstyles. Inez will change her hair style every week. I don't think I ever see her with a hat on," Mrs. Pressley said.
But when someone asked about the hats, talking about them and the loss of her daughter proved to be easier than she expected. Instead of a struggle, it turned out to be a comfort, even a healing, she said. "See how God worked that out. God is so good. He is awesome."
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or email@example.com.
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