The Gracious Mask
by Zoë Faith Reyes
To look at her, you would think she was a princess. Perfect hair, long graceful hands, polished nails, smooth skin, a tall elegant frame. Images of her from each era of her ninety years of life represent iconic beauty of that time. To encounter her, you would experience an instinct to bow. Refined manners, sophisticated yet warm hospitality, a home decorated with the stuff of monarchs and the taste of queens. Known by neighbors, recognized at the country club, harangued in the church fellowship hall, much like a princess fawned over by an adoring public. My grandmother was a legend in her own time.
Her countenance impresses, but it is a mask. The hair is a wig. The nails are acrylic. The smooth skin is made of powder and cream.
Age proves a mask is static. Life is dynamic. Eventually life will extend beyond what a mask can cover.
There was a time when the mask was more than her little life was ready to fill out. Her world was grander than she'd felt equipped for: fancy dinners, oversees travels, fine occasions with famous dignitaries, but she was just a simple young girl from Texas. A girl whose husband's education moved her home from state to state. His career called her around the world to see and be seen. She rose to these challenges, and she came to own that mask, to live into it like her own skin.
One might criticize a person for living life inside a mask. I know I certainly have. The life portrayed is one constructed, inorganically one might assume. But worst of all, it hides another life inside. Skepticism assumes the mask is a lie. The true life inside remains a mystery.
This is true of our princess. Beneath each auburn hair that sits perfectly in its place, there likes a hair whose true color remains a mystery to me. I've never seen it in its natural state. Beneath the polished acrylic grow fragile, brittle nails. Beneath the layers of makeup, wrinkles and sunspots hold memories of moments lived, lost, and loved.
I've always disapproved of people who hide their true selves within a mask--"two-faced" people who acted kind to hid contempt, were compliant to hide discontent, feigned respect to hide their personal agenda.
Distaste for this disingenuousness, so common in my native Texan culture, pushed me towards a life of proud authenticity. I made no effort to conceal my emotions as I felt them. I dismissed others' concerns for my presentation. I spoke the truth as I saw it without regard for consequences.
My words were often as harsh as the Texas heat. I considered myself exceedingly courageous.
There is a proverb that reads, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." As admirable as authenticity has seemed to me, I understand that in being true to myself, I have been careless towards others. I have caused unnecessary pain.
If I am careless with my words, and most communication is nonverbal, it is heartbreaking to think of all the ways I communicate hurt through my thoughtlessness. But my grandmother is ever thoughtful. Another proverb says, "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." Her husband may have been the doctor, but through her words and nonverbal presence, my grandmother was the healer.
While authenticity might be valuable, truth, when combined with love, may very well have more than one face. In Grammy, there have been two faces. But they bear the integrity of one heart.
The root of that mysterious hair, the quick of those delicate nails, and the secrets locked within each hidden wrinkle are the seeds from which her mask springs forth. Rather than a disingenuous disconnect, there is an organic connection between the two. Unlike Dorian Gray, whose perfect face concealed the contrary life made plain in his portrait, or Dr. Jekyll, whose inner darkness was unleashed in the person of Mr. Hyde, my grandmother wore a mask attuned to the precise needs of her environment and its inhabitants. While her father's dinner time jokes chiseled wrinkles around her lips they also taught her to bend others' lips into sweet smiles. The same dignitaries who forced her to learn the etiquette of eating around the world also taught her how to welcome a diversity of guests to her own dining table and make them feel welcomed and valued. The cancer that ate away at her body also built in her a heart of active compassion for the sick. Beneath her graceful mask lies only deeper grace.
. . .
I look at moments where my mother and I are most at ease and content, and I see an echo of Grammy reverberating through us all. We are women marked by erring perhaps too much on the side of unhealthy self-denials. None of us would like to admit that we have our own secret delights, but we share a selfish guilty pleasure. I picture each of us, in a convertible, top down, sun shining, wind blowing, eyes clear and focused on the road ahead, the softest smile on our lips hinting at sublime satisfaction. There's something about flying down a road, coming from a place where we've been all put together, wearing the mask, serving an important duty. Having accomplished the job, we can now let the top down and let our hair fly free in the wind that whips away our cares and our decorum. A drive away from the public, buttoned up responsibilities of the city, out to the private, casual relaxation of the beach.
If any photo can uncover my grandmother's essence, the face beneath the mask, this one does. Few individuals in her adult life got this glimpse of the hair beneath her wig. I love how the picture shows her long stems, uncontainable by the chair she sits in or even the photo frame. My aunt's knee sticks up nearly above her head. Grammy's arms and hands are intwined around my aunt's skinny little body. They're all wrapped up in each other.
They're at the beach.
The beach is where Grammy has always gone to let her hair down. The place she could go without worrying about being seen, where she could be her natural self. Here we get a glimpse of the woman within the mask. The woman filled with joy, with hair that matches the hair of her daughter. The woman whose eyes betray delight with her daughter. They laugh together.
Her visage may have often been inauthentic, but her love was never insincere.
All these years later, through decades of serving the needs of others, of anticipating their discomforts and preemptively creating an environment that puts everyone at ease, of sacrificing her own natural inclinations to create a space where others can be their natural selves, she's raised three generations who have, in their own ways, learned to do the same. Two daughters who can hardly travel anywhere in the world without encountering a person whose life they've positively impacted. Five grandchildren active in their communities, loving their families. In-laws who find in her an attentive matriarch. And a whole gaggle of great grandchildren who get the rare gift of knowing her first-hand.
She's created a clan of people who love well. She's overseen the development of her family like a monarch overseeing the safety and growth of her nation. Her work is more than well done.
For so long, the tool of her love and care for the world around her was her mask, her outer layer. But as she has taught us all to love, we have become the extension of her care and sacrifice. We are now that tool. She can now be free to delegate the work to her offspring, trusting that in our numbers, we can perhaps hope to execute an equal distribution of love as she has as one person.
Relinquishing the weight of her crown, she can now be free to be Grammy-at-the-beach.
The mask that she could once barely fill can no longer contain her love. Now the hairs, still dyed and styled, are her own. The nails are exposed, but organic. The makeup can no longer conceal the journey of her long life. The truth of who she is emerges forth.
Through every layer of herself, she shows love.
Zoë Faith Reyes
Zoe seeks to find and catalyze life through her writing, photography, mothering, and community development work. With roots in Texas, and a decade long stay in California, she now lives in Maine with her husband and two children.