Using stories of marginalised people as future life-lessons for her daughter, Ashleigh Donnelly urges us all to look behind the masks we wear to appreciate the person behind the covering.
To my precious girl,
Your grandmother’s face mask is white with red gum blossoms. In the background are leaves in dusty blues and blacks, like the gum trees at sunset in the Blue Mountains. We’ll take you there one day when lockdown is over. You like to pull at the elastic on your Nanna’s mask. When you let go of the elastic it moves very quickly towards her cheek, even faster than the birds when they flap their wings. Sometimes you’ll pull the elastic so far that it causes her mask to dangle off one ear.
Poppy’s mask is black. Even though it covers his mouth, you still know he’s smiling when Poppy says, “Peepo!”
His eyes give it away.
Jackie wears a mask too. We see Jackie on our early morning walks when you wake up before the birds. Jackie usually tells us that she’s waiting for the pharmacy to open and grumbles about the weather.
Her threadbare, green leggings are always the same.
And her slippers. There are holes in them that must make her toes cold.
Jackie’s clothes don’t change much but her eyes do. Some days they glisten under the streetlight, the same way yours do when you wake up ravenous in the night. Some days her eyes are covered with dark glasses. And on other days they are red. Even redder than the gum blossoms on Nanna’s mask.
One day when you’re a big girl, Nanna and Poppy won’t need to wear masks when they walk with us. And when we no longer need to wear masks you will see that Jackie’s smile is just as kind as her eyes when she greets you each morning.
But even when our bodies are immune to this virus, masks will always be a part of your world. They will just take different forms.
You see, there are lots of masks that Jackie wears. There is one she wears when she tells us she is waiting for the pharmacy to open, even at 6am, three hours before opening. It gives her a reason to be outside in the cold when everyone else is tucked up in bed.
Before you were born, Mummy was a Social Worker at a workshop that employed adults with intellectual disabilities. Many of them were bullied at school and pretended to have personalities that God didn’t give them.
There was one young man called Tom who loved American 90s pop music. If you named any song from that decade, he could tell you the artist and the year it was released. Tom walked 2.57km to work each day and sang out loud the whole way. He graduated from high school on December 2, 2019, the same day that Britney Spears turned 38. Tom will also tell you it was 10 days before the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China.
When Tom went to school it sometimes felt like his head was about to burst open. His brain was so full of interesting information, but it wasn’t interesting to the other kids. At first, Tom wasn’t sure if they liked hearing his information. But when he saw what they had written about him on the Internet, Tom decided he’d keep all his wonderful facts to himself. This made him cry instead of sing on the way home from school.
One day you will be a strong, brave girl with decisions to make every day. Some decisions, like choosing ice cream flavours or television shows, will have little bearing on others. But many of your decisions, if executed thoughtfully, are powerful agents of change.
But trust me, my girl. When you consider that behind someone’s mask is a galaxy of possibility, you give that person permission to breathe. To rest. And to consider, perhaps for the first time, the individual that God created them to be.
Consider it a project to investigate the mechanics of what makes people tick. It will astonish you how beautifully different we all are.
But don’t get me wrong. What makes some people tick will tick you off.
And what makes you tick
will tick them off
like a clock that ticks all night
We’re all a little crazy.
And some day, probably when you least expect it, a lovely person might stop you to examine your mask. They might tug at the elastic a little to see how fixed it is. They may describe it to you in case you had forgotten what it looks like. It might not be as beautiful as your precious Nanna’s mask with gum blossoms and mountain leaves.
And that’s OK. Because it doesn’t need to stay on forever. One day, if everyone plays their part, our world will be safe from the virus.
And one day, if everyone plays their part, there won’t be as many “other masks” either … the ones that Tom and Jackie know all about.
You can start today at nine months old, by focussing on your Poppy’s eyes when he wears his black mask. He loves you dearly.
And I do too,
‘A letter to my nine-month-old daughter’ was awarded second prize in The Good Oil 2021 Writers’ Award.