My high school friend Linda had a Christmas tree decorated with blown egg ornaments and real lighted candles. Carrying on a family tradition from the Old Country, Linda and her mom made the ornaments from real eggshells (emptied of their contents) decorated with paint, glitter, ribbons, and rhinestones. Some of the eggs had the front part of the shell removed to make a diorama, revealing a cottage in the mountains, a starry night, Father Christmas on a puff of snow, Mary and a manger, etc. The tree was gorgeous, and it filled Linda’s front room with the smells of pine and wax, with a faint undertone of scrambled egg.
Linda’s family added a couple of handmade ornaments to their collection every year. Stored properly, eggshell ornaments can last quite a while. Over the past twenty-five years, my family has acquired many ornaments, most from big box stores. We have a few handmade ornaments, all created by Sonny in elementary school art classes. Our main creative decorating tradition is figuring out locations for the baubles that don’t fit on our meter-high Christmas tree.
Dave put two ornaments in the short hall that connects the back and front parts of the ground floor. One, a red and gold ball, dangles from the key rack. The other is hung on a painted nail that sticks out of the wall about eight feet above the floor. It’s a fancy ornament: a face mask of a lady with blue lipstick, blue eye-liner, and a blue velvet hat, along with swirly crescents in blue and gold on her forehead, with leaves or maybe tears falling down her cheeks. Her proportions are pretty and slightly UFO-ish, with a broad forehead and oversized eyeholes tapering to a tiny chin.
I don’t remember where or when we’d acquired her. It was definitely pre pandemic. I did an image search on google to see if I could find out more, but couldn’t find an exact match. She seems to be generally in the tradition of Venetian Carnival masks. In the Venetian Republic, maybe as a carryover from the Roman Saturnalia winter celebrations of old, it was legal during some parts of the year for the populace to wear masks and mingle without regard to normal social boundaries. This custom was quite popular, since it let Venetians without power let off steam without actually upending the status quo. Although there were limits—people in masks were forbidden to throw scented eggs (ovi odoriferi, hollowed out eggs filled with perfume) at one another, for example. The festivities also led to a thriving mask-making industry, which flourished for around a thousand years, until 1797, when Napoleon conquered the Republic and outlawed public mask-wearing and Carnival. Amazingly, this prohibition lasted until 1979!
Dave had chosen a location where the mask was hard to ignore. She was visible from the dining room, from the kitchen, and from the basement staircase. There was something about her. My eyes kept seeking her out as I walked past with the laundry or sorted the mail or stirred noodles on the stove.
“It feels like she’s…watching us, doesn’t it?” Dave said one day.
“Yes,” I said.
I didn’t know how I felt about that. She was a pretty thing. I enjoyed looking at her. I’m fascinated and perplexed by the aesthetics of masks. I’ve never quite understood those stories where people in masks that cover a bit of their face are unrecognizable to their friends. Really, no one can tell that Robin is Dick Grayson or that the Dread Pirate Roberts is Wesley?
It turns out that the Robin effect is not that much of an exaggeration. Research done during the pandemic, during which time many people complained that they couldn’t recognize others with masks on, found that masks seem to impair our facial recognition by about 15%. This has something to do with the way the human brain synthesizes individual features like the nose, mouth, dimples, freckles, eyes, etc., into a face. Obscure some of those features and the brain starts to focus on the ones it can see rather than amalgamating them.
It’s a bit different for me. Masks don’t make it harder for me to recognize people. Or easier. My memory for faces is bad. I may have a mild case of prosopagnosia, the fancy term for facial blindness, or maybe my difficulties are autistic. It’s hard for me to stare at people’s faces long or intensely enough to fix their features in my memory. I’m much more likely to rely on other aspects to differentiate among the humans I know: height, hair, voice and speech, movement, and clothes.
As the days passed I came to like the mask lady more and more, maybe because I could stare at her for as long as I liked. Her expression wouldn’t change. I nodded to her as I went to check for mail, as I pulled pans out of the cupboard, as I entered my studio in the morning. I gave her a new, secret name: Our Lady of the Mask.
“I think I want to leave her up past Christmas,” Dave said, as we pulled the fish out of the oven for dinner yesterday.
There was no need to pack her away in a box. She was sturdier than an eggshell.
“Yes,” I said.