When the wearing of masks became recommended, then mandatory, my first thought was; ‘How will I lipread people when I can’t see their lips?’
I was also touched by the number of people who contacted me to say they‘d thought of me with a similar concern. Thank you to them.
The first time I went into town wearing a mask, was when I needed to get a new battery for my watch, the old one having – with some irony – stopped working at the start of lockdown.
I arrived at the jewellers, and the man behind the counter was indeed wearing a mask.
I explained that I’m deaf and, before I said any more, the man removed his mask.
I was impressed and grateful he’d thought to do so, and we had a little conversation about my watch – me masked, him not – before he fitted the battery. I thanked him and, as I walked away, saw him put his mask back in place.
When I first put my mask on, I fidgeted a bit. It pulled at my ears. It made my glasses steam up. I found it hard to breathe.
Then something changed. Somewhere between putting my mask on, and leaving the jewellers, I realised I wasn’t fidgeting. I was breathing fine. More than that, I felt fine, in a way I recognised from years ago.
It was bizarre. Why, as I chatted to the jeweller, and walked around town, and tried to smile with my eyes at other masked people, did I feel so unusually comfortable?
Later in the day, the penny finally dropped.
I’d felt comfortable because I was meeting people equally. I looked as normal – or abnormal – as anyone else. I didn’t look different.
As a result of surgery many years ago, my face is damaged. Half of it does not work properly. I cannot smile symmetrically.
Over the years, I have become accustomed to my lopsided face. It would be untrue to say I like it – and indeed mirrors and cameras are not my favourite things (to be fair, they never have been) – but it’s how I am and I accept it, rarely giving it much thought.
Or so I thought.
Until the day I wore a mask, and no one I met noticed my damaged face before they recognised anything else about me. How delightfully surreal.
I am more used to my subconscious perception of reality, which is often one of noticing people I meet notice that I am different. An impression that hovers on the edges of my awareness; not centre stage, but frequently managing to give itself a walk-on part.
The next time I wore a mask, was on a day out with my family. Tradition has it that, when we have days out, Aunty Memem (me) buys ice cream. In fact, at the start of the day, Micah, my five year old nephew, said to me, very confidentially, that he’d seen an ice cream van and he thought we should have our ice creams after lunch, as our pudding.
Funnily enough, when we did get ice creams later, Micah chose a chocolate bar instead, but the ‘ice cream’ tradition is embraced by us all.
After walking in the grounds – in the rain, naturally – at Charlecote House, we stopped at the shop there to get ice cream. A notice by the door said, ‘Masks must be worn in the shop’. We all duly donned our masks. Micah was the last to put his on and, when he saw me wearing my mask, he said, “Aunty Memem, you look funny!”
He said it to no one else, just me.
The one who, unmasked, looks the most different was the one who, when masked, and similar to everyone else, looked the strangest.
It was Winnie-the-Pooh, that wise old bear, who said, ‘The things that make me different are the things that make me me.’
A friend recently read my memoir, Still Emily. In the middle of the book are photos of me, from birth onwards. Partway through them, of course, my face and smile change.
My friend said that, as she looked at the photos, it wasn’t until she turned to the ones of how I look now that she thought, ‘oh good, there she is.’
This blog has no Jane Eyre-esque ‘Reader, I married him’ happy ending.
It would still be untrue for me to say I like my face.
It would also still be true for me to say I rarely give it much thought (says the one who has just blogged about it: yep, I get the irony).
But the sense of shock I felt at the unexpected comfort of the incognito mask was very real.
“Aunty Memem, you look funny!” said Micah.
‘The things that make me different are the things that make me me.’ said Winnie-the-Pooh.
As I said, this blog has no formula for a happy ending.
We all have things about ourselves we’d rather hide.
But, notably to me, Micah has never said I look strange when I’m not wearing a mask.
Because, when I’m not wearing a mask, I am me.