Sunday, November 22, 2009


I got the Quaker bonnet out of a large box that came from my mother's house.  It smells like my mother's house, like her bureau drawers--a mellow, clean, much-cared-for smell. The word "bonnet" suggests something quaint or coy.  But this hat, poised  on my kitchen table atop a tall glass boot I got at a jumble sale, is so completely black that it looks like the only thing of weight in the room.  Other than pleating, there is no variation on its matte, silk surface. The hand stitching is intricate, the construction complex. My mother told me it was a dress bonnet, which means it must have been worn at public events, Meeting for Worship, weddings, or funerals. There's a faint sweat stain on the cream-colored band inside,  sweat that foreshadows my own DNA.  According to the densely written two-page note which my mother put in the box, Anne Emlen Howell, (1824-1905...mother of...etc.) is pictured in a family photo wearing a very similar bonnet.  If I were writing this as a book, I might clone her.  (Let's do it! My daughter said. Then we'll have a baby!)

The bonnet, hidden for so long, is the only dark thing in my kitchen at night, denser than the washed-looking sky outside, which is made glossy by our French doors. All the appliances, the refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, look insubstantial, as if they could float away. Even the tile floor and back splash appear lacy compared to the bonnet.  A dark wood apothecary cabinet that once stood in my grandmother's attic, full of souvenirs she picked up in her days as a Quaker missionary and now containing china and silver, is lightened by grain and sheen. 

The bonnet is a presence.  Its shape is complex, neatly engineered.  It refers only to itself, like an unexpected rock formation in a desert.  If I looked at it long enough, it might tell me something.