When I was five years old, my dad graduated from law school and we moved back to my hometown. For the first year, we lived with my dad’s parents while my mom and dad got settled. While I know now how difficult that was on the adults, as a child that time was filled with wonder. My grandparents’ house seemed enormous, with a finished basement that went on and on. Because she had starred in musicals for years, my grandmother had a cold storage room that was filled with racks of costumes. My little heart delighted in all the fabrics and sequins and glitter, and the calming smell of un-ground wheat that came from the back of the room where the food storage was kept. To this day, the smell of wheat makes me feel at peace.
Sometime in those years, my grandmother’s parents moved to our town as well.
I was blessed with young great-grandparents–they were mid-60s and 70s when I was five–and though they seemed elderly to me, Nana and Bumps (as I called them) were so much fun. They had me over to their plastic-furniture-covered ranch house for sleepovers regularly, and I loved playing in their giant half-acre backyard or relaxing with Nana in the hot tub at night. There was always hard candy in the candy jar, and we never missed an episode of Dallas. Bumps would putter in the garage in the afternoons and let me help him sort nails, and sometimes we’d sneak off for a ride in his fancy smooth-riding Lincoln to the post office.
For some reason, Bumps called me Renae. It’s my middle name, and while I’ve always thought it pretty, I’m not sure I would ever have chosen to go by it. There was something about the way my great-grandfather saw me, though, and the things he expected of me, that made it feel like a great honor to be the only family member he had given a nickname. “Hello, Renae!” he’d boom when I came in the house, and finding it surprising, I’d giggle. Sometimes, when I was playing out in the yard, he would watch me for a while and then, with a twinkle in his eye, come and ask, “So. Are you Jennifer today? Or are you Renae?” I would always laugh at his silliness, and then answer, “Renae!” and he would respond with, “Good.”
Bumps never had any patience for daydreaming, whining, or anything else that seemed useless or ineffective. He admired grit, hard work, and sheer spunk. Over the years, a part of me came to believe that when Bumps called me Renae, it was because he’d taken a good long look at me and seen, that day, flashes of the qualities he admired most. I loved the idea that, somehow, he was able to see that version of me best. Once, when I was coming through a difficult period, he studied my face for a few minutes.
“You look happy again,” he said. “I can see it in your eyes.”
Not sure how to respond, I said something bashful and fumbling in response.
Nodding, he sagely replied, “You look like Renae again.”
That connection between us remained strong until the end. In pieces, dementia began to take his family and his faculties away from him. But he continued to call me Renae long after he’d forgotten my real name or how I belonged to him. The name he had created for me surpassed any other bond that his failing mind forgot. He knew Renae belonged to him.
The Renae Hat is a design I created with solely my aesthetic taste in mind, and in the end I find it bears a kind of bold and striking femininity. In it I see the strong, straightforward beauty that I believe my great-grandfather always admired. I couldn’t bring myself to name it anything but Renae.