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Lost hat sparks quest that evokes a mother’s love

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Bridget Hughes / MCT

Bridget Hughes in the brown knit cap that her mother wore while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Hughes, now 23, was 7 when Lynn Hughes died in 1997. Her daughter remembers the way her sick mother would make her giggle by flipping the brim up and joking about “my Indiana Jones look.” Bridget is desperately searching for the cap, which she lost at the Phoenix, Arizona, airport.

Updated Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 | 10:28 a.m.

She didn’t notice it was gone at first, not in the midnight confusion of a canceled flight, nor in the scrum at customer service, nor in the sleepy shuttle bus ride to an airport hotel where her luggage would not be waiting.

The loss didn’t register until the next morning, when Bridget Hughes reached into her backpack — the only bag she had with her — and the floppy brown hat that she takes everywhere wasn’t there.

Oh no, oh no, I can’t have lost this, she remembers thinking.

In a world full of things lost and never found, that might have been that.

But it wasn’t.

Flip through her Facebook photo albums, and you will see that 23-year-old Bridget Hughes is a girl of many hats: A ski hat with pompoms, and a birthday crown fashioned from a lunch sack and glitter. There’s Bridget goofing in some sort of zombie do-rag, beaming beneath her college mortarboard, smiling nervously in an inadequate-looking helmet she wore bungee-jumping off a bridge in Ecuador.

But most of all, you will see her in the floppy brown knit Gap hat that her mother wore while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Bridget was 7 when Lynn Hughes died on Feb. 12, 1997. She remembers how her sick mother would make her giggle by flipping the brim up and joking about “my Indiana Jones look.”

Every so often, as Bridget was growing up, her aunt would mark a special occasion by presenting her with some keepsake of her mother’s, such as the class ring that was too small for Bridget’s finger, or the flowery comforter that was too big to take anywhere.

But the brown hat fit perfectly, and Bridget could smell her mother’s lost scent in the soft, old yarn. It finally became hers this past August, to celebrate Bridget’s move from her native Pennsylvania to Las Cruces, N.M., where she teaches preschool as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“It was the only possession of hers I could constantly carry with me,” she said.

Look at the Facebook album again: There’s Bridget in her mom’s hat — shooting the rapids, climbing a mountain, sitting in church, kissing her boyfriend. (They met when he responded to her profile picture — in the hat — on an online dating site.)

She knows she had the cap Sunday night: She pulled it over her eyes while napping in the Phoenix airport during a layover on her trip home from Thanksgiving.

On Monday morning, she retraced her steps from hotel to shuttle van to Sky Harbor International Airport to the US Airways gate. No one had seen her hat. She left a message with lost and found, and spent the day searching the terminal until her flight home that night.

The next day, she decided to give it one last shot.

“So, I’ve turned it over to the power of social media, all for a hat that represents the fierce goofy independent spirit of a woman that is my mother,” she posted on her Facebook page. “If anyone is willing to just share this status, I’ll be really grateful.”

Before she knew it, the 63 friends of Bridget Hughes who shared it had led to 214,813 shares, 34,839 likes and 10,670 comments and counting around the world. Her appeal was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Indonesian.

She heard from other daughters who had lost mothers, from other mothers who longed to comfort her. Strangers offered prayers from Australia, the Netherlands, and the Jersey Shore. Montreal sent hugs. Arizonans offered to go search the airport and call every trash collector in Phoenix. Concerned witches offered spells involving spilled salt and broken cords. A crocheting club in Ohio offered to make her a matching replacement. All echoed the hopeful rallying cry of an Englishman who commented: “Let’s get this hat home!”

The airport was besieged with enough calls, emails and Tweets to post reassurances on its own Facebook page that everything possible was being done to find the hat.

“Someone will find a $100 bill and turn it in,” airport spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said hopefully. “We have 200 lost items a week, and an average of one-third of them are returned.”

Bridget scrolled through the comments on her Facebook page and felt the collective hope and heartache of far-flung strangers sharing their own stories of what they had lost in this world, and what they had found. She changed her profile picture to the last snapshot her family took together, that Christmas just six weeks before Lynn Hughes died. It shows a small family huddled together against the cold, a little girl smiling tentatively as her mother, beaming beneath the floppy brim of a brown hat, leans into her father’s embrace.

The little girl, now grown, knows there’s little chance of finding the hat that belonged to her mother, now gone.

“If I do, that would be awesome,” she says. “And if I don’t, I will grieve the loss of it, but feel immensely blessed at the same time, and immensely grateful, that so many people cared for me.”

And maybe, she realizes, that is the gift her mother meant for her to have all along.

(Jones is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)

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