Wearing Masks

My mother used to tell the story of how she would put me in knitted hats as a baby. I was born in Chicago and lived there the first three years of my life. Chicago winters are brutal, especially for my mom who grew up in Puerto Rico. She told me that growing up in Puerto Rico, she would only have one sweater to wear around the Christmas holidays, if it got cool enough to even be needed then.

Trying to push a baby stroller around in a Chicago winter was way tougher than she had imagined. The wind whipped her skirts around and under the snow would be a layer of ice that made going out even more treacherous.

In trying to be a good mom, she would bundle me up in a snowsuit and gloves and a hat. The moment she put a hat on my head, I would begin to pull on it, trying to get it off. Being a baby, I didn’t know to pull up, so I pulled straight out, stretching the hat but rarely actually getting it off of my head.

My mom said that she would laugh in the hallway of the apartment building we lived in as my face turned red from the strain of trying to pull the hat off of my head.

To this day, I do not like anything on my head or touching my face. And woe be to the person who dares to touch my neck!! Although I love the look of hats on other people and for a time collected antique hats, I just can not deal with one on my head. Most hats make me look a little lost and needy, but it would not matter if they made me look like BeyoncĂ©- I can’t handle a hat!

Turtlenecks can make me feel uncomfortable or protected depending on how high and tight they are. Even glasses get to me a bit, although I have worn them since I was 8 and find the desire to see what I am doing outweighs the discomfort. Headbands, which actually are kind of cute on me, make me uncomfortable.

And so here we are in a pandemic and what should we be asked (in some places required) to wear but face masks.

I have done my part to stay inside. For seven weeks I have rarely gone out, sending my husband Tim to the grocery store when necessary and only going out to take solitary walks, or go through the drive in at the bank a couple of times.

I have seen my son maybe three times in the last 7 weeks of confinement and I have had a couple of random conversations with a friend or neighbor in my yard with lots of distance between us.

I have had enough.

I decided last week to venture to the grocery store. I am the type of person who worries way too much about what others think, so I contemplated the mask or no mask dilemma. On the one hand you look like you are bending to convention and “the man” if you wear a mask. On the other hand, you seem uncaring and reckless if you don’t.

I had put a headband kind of thingy in my purse ( I had ordered real masks but they weren’t scheduled to arrive for a week) and drove to the store. I watched from the car to see what the majority seemed to be doing to make my decision. Everyone I saw had a mask, so I got the band out of my purse and started to put it on.

It was a wide stretchy thing that would well cover my nose and mouth and then some. I had gotten Tim to try one just so he had something if needed, although he is of the “I am not wearing a mask” camp.

My head is small (contrary to those people who think I have the “big head”!) and this circle of fabric barely stayed in place. As I entered the store I had to keep pulling it up to keep covered.

Right off of the bat, in the deli area, I began to hyperventilate. I told myself to get a grip, this is ridiculous! I took deep breaths and tried to think of the positives of wearing a mask. Other than the obvious protective from and for others, I realized I could scowl or stick my tongue out at people and they would never know!

The aisles are now marked with arrows so that the traffic flows in one direction through the store. That cuts down on the passing of people from other directions which would make us get within the 6 foot guidelines. In the very first aisle I turned up, there were 3 people headed straight at me. My first thought was, “Good grief! I have screwed up right off of the bat!!” I looked down at the arrows on the floor and unless more has changed during my hibernation than I know about, I was going in the right direction. This is when I realized I could scowl with little detection!! It’s not that complicated people!

I got through the store as quickly as possible and the moment I was outside, I peeled off the mask and took in a big, deep breath. I loaded the groceries in the car and rushed home to return to my hermit ways. It seems that I have become even less capable of handling the outside world than I was before.

I realized that I needed to try again, so I went to Lowe’s for a few plants yesterday. It had been a week since the grocery store so I had adequately recovered. I again checked the crowd and almost everyone had on masks. By now my actual masks had come in and I thought they would be better fitted and less annoying. I put one on and headed in. I was better able to breathe, felt less irritable and people seemed to be behaving better, so I browsed through the herbs, found some pretty flowering pots and made my way to the counter.

Even with a mask on, odd people seem to gravitate towards me and next thing I know the lady in the line across from me begins telling me about the plants she has bought, shows me pictures of her garden on her phone from 6 feet away, and suggests I get out of line to get some of the shrubs she is buying on sale. I finally am able to pay and leave, wondering if I ever actually want to leave my house again. I might be ok with a permanent quarantine!!

Today was the whole reason I made these forays out into the world. It was all just a rehearsal for today. I had volunteered to help with a blood drive and knew I would A) have to wear a mask and B) be around lots of other people. I have felt pretty badly that I haven’t done more over the last few weeks, so I decided to go help out. My trips to the store were practice for today.

In getting ready to go this morning, I realized I no longer know how to get ready in the morning. Although I did remember to put on pants, I was out of sync with my usual routine. I forgot rings I normally wear, kept going back to add glasses to my purse, then to get my phone and finally to add the dreaded mask to my bag. I figured I was forgetting something, but decided to just leave because it was getting late.

The discussion of masks today was rather interesting. No one is fond of them and they definitely hinder life as we knew it.

One person walked up telling us that indeed she was smiling at us, although we couldn’t see it. Knowing this person, I knew she was, she always is! I really missed seeing that smile! I told the person next to me that I had RBF (resting bitch face) and wondered if the mask made that better or worse! I wondered silently how people who had Botox in their forehead would make any expression at all with a mask covering all but their frozen brow.

Several people walked by me without me realizing who they were because of the mask. Several other people really scrutinized me before realizing who I was. What we were trying to say was muffled and I felt that I was probably hearing myself echoing in the mask better than the person I was speaking to could hear me. However, snide remarks under my breath seemed to be easier, which is a plus for me.

We all have had those imaginary masks that we wear to hide our feelings, to be polite, to fit in. We hide parts of ourselves from some people and other parts from other people. We pretend to be happy sometimes when we are crying inside, we pretend to be confident other times when in fact, we wish the floor would just open up and swallow us.

Those pretend masks are usually of our own choosing. Usually we have people who see through those masks and know when we are hurting or sad. They know when we are excited or have a fun story to share. They can see when we need them, when we need space. It is hard to hide from them. But for the general public, we have those hidden parts.

There are those of us who have everything written all over our faces, who are not as good at hiding their emotions, who don’t really try. Who look scared, excited, sad, bewildered, lost or something expressive almost all of the time.

These new, actual masks cover all of those emotions up. I looked at the people today and wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Was this their first time at a blood drive? Were they nervous? Were they irritated by the long wait, were they worried about the health implications of being around so many people? Were they glad to finally be around others again?

Our faces tell a lot about us, sometimes the truth and sometimes not. Not being able to see each other, to not be sure who or what we are seeing, is the hardest part about these new masks.

I laughed when my friend said, “I’m smiling, y’all!” In reality it makes me a little sad that she had to tell me. I hope this doesn’t last too long. I need to see her smile.


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Marietta is a graduate of the University of Montevallo with a BFA in musical theater. She has been performing for over 50 years on the stage and continues to perform, direct and teach. Marietta is married to Tim, has a son named Jon, and a cat named Penny.