What My Mask Hides

One of my favorite songs is the 1954 Nat King Cole rendition of “Smile.” I remember my father playing it and softly singing along when I was a little girl. He was melancholy and rarely smiled. I had discovered his secret side!

I inherited his temperament with one distinct difference — I am a “smiler.”

Smiling is my way of meeting people. Traveling in foreign countries, walking into a meeting or class filled with strangers, even standing in the checkout line at the supermarket – I smile. I stop to play with a baby, or pet a dog being walked — and I smile. It just comes naturally. Most of the time people smile back. Sometimes they wave or say “hi.” And frequently we stop and chat. We share a bit of our lives, complain good naturedly and laugh. And when our brief encounter is over, we part company feeling revived, refreshed and renewed.

I treasure these moments. And as a “Solo Ager” — someone with no family and having outlived most of her friends (the few still around are not local) — they are my lifeline. What is that famous quote from a movie?  “I rely on the kindness of strangers.”

Enter 2020 — the year of the pandemic. Loneliness, always a strong presence, has become my constant companion. There is no one to make a check-in call. No texts saying hello. No Zoom family get togethers. Days go by without any human contact. It is prison free solitary confinement.

There are still trips to the supermarket and long walks. But there is one difference. MASKS!

I am not disputing the need for them. I wear one whenever I go out. I live in a town where people willingly wear them and practice social distancing. Shops provide hand sanitizer, gloves and masks.

Almost everyone seems to understand that we are truly “our brother’s keeper.”

But in that moment when I slip the loops over my ears and carefully adjust the mask over my face, I forgo any opportunity for a precious spontaneous meeting.

No one can see me smile.

And I cannot see anyone else smile.

What happens to our world when there are no smiles? When eyes peer over a piece of cloth and faceless people move cautiously among each other? When fear of even the slightest contact turns us into ghosts of our former selves?

Nowadays I hurry to finish my shopping. I walk just for the exercise. There are no chance meetings. No exchange of pleasantries, talk about the weather, the football game or the baby. No sound of laughter. No handshakes or hugs. Not even a nod of recognition.

My smile was like an open door. “Come on in and visit for a bit.” It didn’t matter your age, gender or race. Somehow there was always something to talk about. Together we found common ground. Nowadays, my mask reminds people to keep their distance. And their mask does the same.

I think we are all suffering from smile deprivation. The tension is palpable. The distance is more than 6 feet — it might as well be miles!

It’s nearly impossible to make a new friend or even an acquaintance when I wear a mask. It’s my smile that invites a handshake or a hug. When my smile is reciprocated, we share a special moment in time.

So – what do I do now in this age of covid19? This age of masks?

I wish I had an answer. I don’t think there is any substitute for a smile. My loneliness and feeling of estrangement grows by the day.

Zoom and other technologies are poor substitutes. My only hope is to “hang in there,” and wait it out. For how long? After all, I am 75.

How ironic it would be for the woman who lived by a smile to die without one!



  1. So saddened always by not only the lack of smiles but the lack of facial expression in general. I barely recognize some people as well. AND when I visit patients in hospice, often they cannot hear me through the mask. I have taken to removing it for a bit when I am speaking, so that they can see me and I can offer words of comfort. (I have to be COVID tested to visit, so they are a risk to me, not me to them.)

    • I had not thought about the challenge of masking while comforting the sick and afraid. Yet another layer of sadness.Thank you for visiting those patients…I know it means the world to them.

  2. I’m surprised at how i can tell someone is smiling at me in their eyes. Nowadays with a masked face, I focus on the smile in eyes. Also, in the south, people greet one another with a nod and the mask doesn’t hide that movement. Sometimes, I trip because the mask prevents me from seeing what’s on the ground, so I do spend more time looking downward instead of upward into someone’s face.

  3. Yes…people nod or wave. I miss the pause for casual conversation and other friendly encounters. The personal experiences.

  4. I find that I smile a LOT with my eyes, and am able to make the quirky comment that substitutes for the mouth smile, even in a socially distanced line waiting to vote. For this single social distancer who waved at 76 last year, it’s the lack of hugs that are a killer…and my skin means that literally.
    We’re all adapting, and Zoom is my best frenemy, but at what cost? I’ve done the Zoom Stomp with an aluminum foil Covid taking a beating from the 6 year old grandchild who is begging for a visit here, which means from another state and a 2 week quarantine for all of us. Her big brother is showing too many signs of the universal depression that daily becomes more common…and they have great, devoted parents providing creative solutions. I think about many of my former students who have nobody because parents are working across town and unreachable all day.
    I wonder if mask sized emoticons showing that smile and another of a megaphone, with a third of hands shaking might start a conversation?
    Wishing you adventures in alternative smiling and wonderful responsive people to connect with.
    Gail Bienstock

  5. Thanks for your comment Gail. Yes…there is so much more to deal with than just the mask. I miss hugs too. All of our forms of comforting and affection are restricted. I wonder, when this pandemic finally ends, how our personal relationships as well as casual friendships will have changed.

  6. Experience so far is joy at connecting around the globe, all the frustrations and limitations, and the miracle of finding creative solutions with dear neighbors and the intentional family group. Best ever was finding very disposable flatware that was silver finished, china looking disposable plates and bowls—the works, and even inexpensive white card table size linens. We set up card tables in the back yard, 1 per family, baskets with candles, condiments, apples and tiny honey packets, and mini challas for each table, had a long serving table (each family had their own utensils for self serving and contributed something that could be heated at the last minute, bottled water…it’s a forever list. It felt totally like holiday except for sharing our meal with the flies and a few showers. Families were served by a masked and gloved hostess or self served in mask and gloves and we sang and laughed and shared memories of other holidays. We grands were delighted when one of the kids and her kids called to sing/chant the blessings with us and “make holiday..”
    I am hopeful that the list of missing things creates a challenge and we can use this space to share creative solutions. There’s a LOT that’s painful in this time, and a whole lot of creativity to go round.

    • Sounds wonderful! I think one of the good things to come out of this difficult time is the appreciation of simple things and the determination to create meaningful experiences despite the limitations.

  7. As a long time distance runner (and over 85) I always try to make eye contact, lift my index finger in a slight wave and nod as I pass other runners, some in masks and some not. (Difficult to run with mask unless it is pulled down.) I’m always happy when I get a nod back but it doesn’t always happen because some may be focused elsewhere.

  8. Appreciate your insights—like you, I’m happier connecting and hoping it brightens up another’s day.

  9. RafiNova.com sells masks with a large clear plastic space for your smile to shine forth! They are a small, family-run business near Boston, and I am happy to support them. I, too, am a 75-year old Lone Ranger and needed the smile mask. Now what to do about the skin hunger?

    • Hello Ari. Looks like I replied in the wrong space initially. Thank you for the information. And yes … “skin hunger” is very real!

  10. Thanks Margi. Yes…connecting is what I miss. And what I hope to do by writing. So I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

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