One day, I started fooling around with a stiff, oversized envelope that had accompanied me to my mother’s. As I sat in front of her cutting out holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth, my mother looked on with great interest. When it was finished, she gave it her stamp of approval, marveling at how a mask can totally change a person.
At first, she didn’t want me to wear it into the dining room, but finally she relented. Although a few residents weren’t sure what to make of it, many enjoyed it. I told them I was inspired by the annual West Indian-American Day Carnival parade that ended just outside their building the week before. The mask brought a touch of magic into an environment where conversation is confined to only a few tables. It also became the catalyst for personal interactions that would probably not have occurred otherwise.
A week later, I fashioned a more feminine mask for my mother out of a paper plate. Throughout its construction, she’d say, “Excellent!”, “Very good!”, or “Perfect!” until I tried repurposing one of her scarfs as both hair and chin strap. “Too much, ” she advised, “take it off,” and I had to admit she was right. These were among the few coherent statements she made all day.
This is me, not my mother.
The two of us pose for a formal portrait.
My mother’s neighbors often sit on benches in front of their building when the weather is nice. There, a steady parade of Brooklyn hipsters, young families, elderly Russians from the day-care facility around the corner, Prospect Park bicyclists and picnickers, food truck patrons, and orthodox Jews ensures that boredom is kept at bay. I thought that for Halloween, it would be fun for the residents sitting outside to have smiley faces for greeting trick-or-treaters on equal terms. I made about 15 masks, using paper plates and foam core handles, but had to discard Plan A when the weather proved uncooperative. Instead, I gave them away inside the building to anyone who wanted one. Weeks later, one woman told me that she liked the mask because it reminded her of her late husband. In R~’s apartment, I couldn’t help but notice that two of the masks were framing a large, autographed portrait of a celebrated actress he had known in the theatre.
(L-r): My mother and I at a resident’s art show in the assisted-living facility. (Lettuce and bread stick courtesy of the reception’s hors d’ouevres.) Here, you can see the family resemblance.
Later that evening at dinner.