She wore the golden crown with regal bearing, and it reflected brilliantly in the sun. Her gown brushed against her ankles in the slight breeze that also swept through her hair. Her right shoulder dipped in casual elegance, arm draped languidly at her side. Her left hand rested smartly on her hip, bracelets dangling.
In reality, she was small in stature, barely touching four feet in height, if that; but, also in reality, she was six months away from turning nine years old. And, in reality, “reality” had nothing to do with her truth.
She was a princess that Halloween – complete with gold cardboard cutout crown, pink gauzy thin ball gown, and a mardi gras-style mask that was a mismatched shade of pink and slightly too large for her face. Wrapping across her eyes, the rough-cut mask also covered her entire nose, forehead, and much of her mouth, and smelled of some sort of starched foreign material; its elastic band kept sliding down the back of her head, taking the front down with it, causing brutal consequences with her ability to see through the eye holes.
Nevertheless, she was royal and beautiful and achingly confident. Because reality had nothing to do with the truth.
Of all the Halloweens and costumes and masks I have ever worn before or since that particular October in the 1950s, this is one of the most memorable to me. I remember some earlier times with homemade disguises and dressing up, but this was my first store-bought costume, and the first time I wore a mask. I thought the gown exquisite, the crown startlingly realistic, and the mask a disarming awakening to possibilities that had never existed before. Behind the mask, I could live within any dream I wanted. I could be anything I could imagine. Behind the mask, I was a beautiful, confident, princess.
There is a black-and-white snapshot of this moment in time that I came across recently. And seeing it brought back all the wondrous feelings. It is in the picture that I can see the pose – the casual tilt of the head, the hand on hip. The utter confidence of being a princess behind a mask.
My current-day yoga instructor tells us that the hand-on-hip stance has been proven to be one of the most confidence-centric messages delivered through body language – for the poser as well as the observers around her (even without a crown and spangled bracelets). So I’m sure I exuded it that day before and after the photo op.
The only person I remember who was not terribly impressed with my gold-crowned pink-masked princess-ness was the “witch” standing behind me in the picture. The pointy-black-hat-wearing Halloween witch with cape and broom and scary facemask holding a cutout black cat on her arm: my much taller, already 11-year-old sister. I suppose sisters are universal that way, and are meant to keep you humble. Happily, it didn’t affect my self-image all that much at that moment. The mask protected me, as masks will do.
In the years since that day, I have, of course, learned about other kinds of masks. Those that guard and intimidate and cover-up and change; the masks that deny pain as well as love, and transform ugliness as well as beauty; masks that hide desperation and loneliness and fear and doubt; masks that protect the child in all of us.
I suspect most people believe that to really know and love one another, we need to look beyond the masks and cherish the faces behind them – the reality. But perhaps, sometimes, the kindest thing we can do for one another is to pretend we don’t see a mask at all, and simply accept the person as they want to be seen, the illusion as presented, the princess in charge. After all, reality often has nothing to do with anybody’s truth.
“What do we any of us have but our illusions? And what do we ask of others but that we be allowed to keep them?” – W. Somerset Maugham