This story isn't about a lost hat.
It's just that in expressing all the important messages on his mind about tradition, family, love, loss and hope, Charley McLenna starts with what's on top of his head.
"It was nothing short of a miracle finding this hat," the 44-year-old Lake in the Hills man says as he tenderly removes his beloved 1934 replica wool Cubs hat, which recently found its way back to him. "This hat made it through Hurricane Sandy."
Just as arborists tell the history of a tree by looking at the rings in its trunk, McLenna sees stories in each fray of his hat's rich blue fabric and each stain on its brim.
"I think it was floating around like this for a little while," McLenna says, holding the hat upside down and moving it up and down as if it were bobbing on ocean waves, which it just might have been.
A bald man who wore his favorite Cubs hat almost every day of the last decade, McLenna was devastated when he lost it on June 6 of last year during a visit to the family's ancestral home in Stone Harbor, a small beach community on Seven Mile Island at the southern tip of New Jersey. His early years were spent in Miami before his family moved to Schaumburg in 1981; he graduated from Conant High School six years later. But McLenna spent his summers and many holidays in the family house in Stone Harbor.
"That's my home. My great-grandfather built the house in 1929," says McLenna, who enjoyed staying in the hidy-hole apartment out back. A substitute teacher and tutor looking for a full-time gig, McLenna and his wife, Jen, a nurse at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, keep up the tradition with their 13-year-old daughter, Caroline.
"She's the fifth generation to swim at the 100th Street Beach. That's our beach," says McLenna, who remembers breaking his wrist at Stone Harbor on the last day of summer vacation when he was 13. His grandfather, Dr. Raymond King, set the break. King died at age 87 in 2004, but his wife, Janet, continued to uphold the family and the tradition.
Before McLenna lost his old Cubs hat, his grandmother had been bugging him to toss it into a washing machine. But he didn't want to tamper with such a special piece of his life.
The lost hat was a harbinger of bad news.
"I scoured the whole island and couldn't find the thing," McLenna says, noting the entire barrier island is either three or four blocks wide, sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intercoastal Waterway. McLenna was wearing his special hat on the night he left Fred's Tavern, a local hangout, but he couldn't find it the next morning.
"It was heartbreaking," he says.
His definition of heartbreak was redefined on the day before Halloween when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast. His parents, Ed and Pam McLenna, and his grandmother, Janet King, were evacuated as seawater flooded the hidy-hole, Fred's Tavern and the rest of Stone Harbor. But the water receded the next day and the community was spared the death and widespread devastation that ravaged much of the state. The flooded home of his older brother, Chip, just north in Margate, still is undergoing renovation.
Then, Feb. 5, his grandmother died at age 92.
"The house and my grandmother were the soul of that island for me," McLenna says. "The one constant. The one safe place. Grandma was my pillar."
On March 15, McLenna had to put down Monty, his family's much-loved 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier.
"In between, my dad almost died," says McLenna, who notes that his father, who lives in the Stone Harbor home now with McLenna's mom, spent time in the hospital for a lung condition but now is recovering.
His grandmother, her ashes scattered in the ocean, didn't want a memorial service. But McLenna lifted his spirits and honored his grandma by naming his new Greater Swiss Mountain puppy Ralph, which was his grandmother's maiden name.
He was missing his grandma during this year's spring break in Stone Harbor when a family friend showed up on March 27 with a water-stained, dirty Cubs hat found outside and asked, "Is this the hat you were looking for?"
No one knows where the hat spent the last nine months, but a thrilled McLenna says he knows how his hat resurfaced.
"Believe what you want, but I honestly believe my grandmother put that hat there," McLenna says. The hat was filthy, so he followed through on his grandma's suggestion.
"She did finally get me to wash this hat. I threw it in the washer, and it came out fine, mostly," McLenna says. "It's got the white stain of the ocean on the brim as a reminder."
His dad's getting better, his puppy Ralph is thriving and his hat is back. Born in 1969, a year synonymous with Cubs heartache, McLenna looks at Monday's Opening Day at Wrigley Field as another in a series of fresh starts.
"The hat may not be exactly as it was before, but it is still my favorite. The Cubs may look different each year as the rebuilding goes, but they are still my favorites," McLenna writes in an essay about his hat. "Hope springs eternal."
He and his mom, another die-hard Cubs fan, understand that well.
"I don't pretend to know how things work, but anything is possible if this hat can come back," McLenna says as he grasps the bill of the hat and readjusts it to deliver "a spring in my step."
His smile grows as his story ends.
"It's just a story about a stupid hat," McLenna says, "but sometimes those are the best stories."