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!
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.