No strange man on the street has told me to “Cheer up, love” for a good two years now. It’s been a surprising plus side of having to wear face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. I could be scowling or grinning like a maniac, but Mr Pass Remarkable will never know.
Masks get a bad press in some quarters, and they are clearly not beloved by all or indeed suitable for everyone, but I certainly won’t be in any rush to give up mine.
Continuing to wear face coverings may no longer be mandated from February 28th, but doing so in certain locations will protect the vulnerable. I haven’t had my normal winter run of colds and sniffles, and they keep my face warm in cool weather.
Perhaps because of the extra effort involved in making oneself heard and understood, I find I don’t yap on in my usual mindless way
They are a comforting shield when I haven’t had time for make-up on the early school run. And when I simply feel like keeping myself to myself, they’re the ultimate cover for introverts wanting to melt into the background.
And, somehow, they make me think a little more before I speak. Perhaps because of the extra effort involved in making oneself heard and understood, I find I don’t yap on in my usual mindless way.
Although the languages spring from the same root, German has so many delightful compound words expressing concepts that English needs but lacks: wanderlust is one many could relate to during the pandemic, while some may have felt a little schadenfreude when our “betters” were caught breaking coronavirus restrictions during lockdown.
“Maskenfreidom” is another pleasing one I’ve encountered recently. My brother who lives in Berlin and I have a rolling WhatsApp debate about whether that word means “freedom from masks” (his interpretation) or “the freedom conferred by masks” (mine), with its all-bets-are-off carnival connotations.
The only masks we knew about in childhood were terrifying balaclavas, as sported by the republican and loyalist paramilitaries who darkened our dreams. At the height of the Troubles, my grandmother bizarrely presented us with our own versions of the knitted headgear with eye and mouth holes.
Leg-warmers and fingerless gloves were acceptable attire for chilly children in 1980s Northern Ireland, but balaclavas were a step too far. I would have been game, as they did look cosy, but my horrified mother stuffed them hurriedly into the hot press, muttering “youse’ll not be wearing those”, and they were quietly disappeared not long afterwards.
In a nice twist, our balaclavas were powder blue in colour rather than the regulation black wool. How different the Troubles might have been had IRA and UVF men delivered their threats while wearing pastel hues.
Masks can cover a multitude of sins, although clearly not all.
Let’s just say my mother had me warned early not to accept a drink in a Champagne flute, or any narrow-rimmed glass
I’ve been reflecting recently on why I’ve found wearing face coverings so liberating. Not being judged on one’s face is a relief I didn’t know I needed. I suspect this is an age thing.
I’m at the stage of life where personalised promotional morning emails greet me like this: “Hey Mary [heart emoji]. Neck ageing tips from our experts [kissy face emoji].”
I know I should unsubscribe, as my kids say, but I do find it such a bleakly amusing start to the day.
Twenty-four months of Zoom calls may have caused some of us to scrutinise our faces in a way we haven’t done since we were teenagers.
Let’s just say my mother had me warned early not to accept a drink in a Champagne flute, or any narrow-rimmed glass, for fear of embarrassing consequences. If you know, you know. Or maybe: if you nose, you nose.
Worse, a man who had never seen me or heard me speak once crossed a bar in New Zealand to ask if I was from a small Co Tyrone town, citing my distinctive nose as evidence. I’m not from Strabane, as he suggested, but from Derry some 20 minutes away, while my mother is from nearby Omagh.
No doubt he believed it had taken generations of inbreeding to produce such a striking srón. He was only half right, though.
People of my vintage from the northwest wouldn’t be known for the diversity of their genetic make-up, put it that way. But having a west Cork grandfather made me practically exotic round our way.
The Minihans brought the nose north with them, more’s the pity. I’m sure it’s not the only reason they left old Skibbereen, but it may have been a factor.
So with the prominent, bumpy bridge from my Tyrone mother’s people, plus a comically bulbous tip that shines red in the cold from my father’s, I’m doubly cursed with this composite.
When the gentleman saw me turn to thank her, the sight of my profile caused him to exclaim: ‘Oh, she’s a Minihan all right. The fine nose!’
I went tracing my paternal grandfather’s roots one summer. Near Lough Hyne, I called with the characterful gentleman who had married my grandad’s cousin many moons ago. I arrived unannounced and unknown, but was immediately welcomed in and fed home-made bread and jam provided by the good lady of the house.
When the gentleman saw me turn to thank her, the sight of my profile caused him to exclaim: “Oh, she’s a Minihan all right. The fine nose!” And he didn’t mean fine as in dainty. They knew then for sure I was a granddaughter of the man they remembered as “Johnny the North”.
I looked again at my grandad’s cousin, herself in permanent possession of a variant of the family heirloom none of us can rid ourselves of without spiting our faces, and we shared a resigned smile.
So if you find masks cumbersome, then by all means whip them off and be happy, while keeping out of the way of the vulnerable.
I’m sticking with mine. Sure it’s no skin off my nose.