The Mask by Hellen Huang
I was eleven years old when I made that mask.
Every Saturday afternoon my mother took me to Mrs. Tanaka’s art studio in Manhattan, where she taught arts and crafts to children like me. Every weekend we commuted from Westchester, which usually took us more than an hour, nevertheless I was always excited about the train ride and being in Manhattan. I remembered stepping into Grand Central Station for the first time, where I chased a pigeon that had flown into the hall. I remembered sunlight filtering through the giant windows and spread across the marble floor like caramel, glimmering on the golden constellations on the pale green ceiling.
Every weekend after my mother dropped me off at Mrs. Tanaka’s, she met up with Sara for tea. Sara was my mother’s best friend from childhood, and they also went to Smith College together. Sara lived on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. I remembered the Italian restaurant that served my favorite tiramisu was right across from her apartment. My mother used to say that Sara was the sister she never had, and so I called her my aunt.
My mother grew up on the Upper West Side and lived there most of her young adult life until she married my father and moved to Westchester, where I grew up in an old Victorian house on a hill, overlooking the Hudson River. My grandfather died in Normandy when my mother was eleven years old. She was an only child, and my grandmother raised her all alone. The year after I was born, my grandmother lost her battle to cancer. Later on, my mother decided to sell her childhood home.
I wanted to make a mask for Mrs. Tanaka’s class. I had wanted to make a mask ever since my mother read me the Phantom of the Opera. I began to make my mask with clay and paint. It took me about four classes to finish making that mask, which had a high forehead, pouting mouth, and pointed chin. I colored most of it with sapphire blue paint. The flecks of gold on the cheeks sparkled in the light. I enjoyed my time at Mrs. Tanaka’s art studio more than any of the classes I had in my middle school. I didn’t have many friends in school, especially since my classmates started to make jokes about my father going to West Germany to work for the Nazis. In reality, my father was a computer engineer, and he was sent to Berlin for a temporary job since he knew a little German.
I remembered the day he left home I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. I was five. When my mother drove me home from my kindergarten, she told me that my father had read the time on his plane tickets wrong and so he left in a hurry. I cried as my mother read the note he left me, where he said he would make it up to me when he came home for Christmas and my birthday at the end of the year. The truth was, he didn’t come home for my birthday at the end of the year. In fact, he wrote us once a month until November that year, and when the letters stopped coming, my mother told me that they had decided to separate and that my father was going to be living in Germany forever. The months following the last letter from my father was hazy – the only thing I remembered from those days was waking up from bad dreams at night and climbing into my mother’s bed, where I cried into her warmth and she quietly wept with me. I wondered if my father had started a new family and forgotten about us.
My bedroom was small but cozy because the walls were decorated with my mother’s paintings. I hung the mask I made on the wall opposite to my bed, next to the clock that belonged to my grandfather. When Sara came to our house and saw the mask I made, she said that I must have gotten the artistic talent from my mother. My mother painted during the day, and in the evening before she cooked for us she enjoyed a cigarette with a glass of white wine on her balcony while listening to classical symphonies.
When I started high school I began to like painting. I often sat next to my mother while she painted, and sometimes she let me finish coloring for her. Because of my mother, painting became a great hobby of mine. And perhaps because of my new hobby, my art teacher in high school, Mr. Kisch, became my favorite teacher. On some days, I ate my lunch in his classroom while he told me about his family’s unthinkable journey out of Czechoslovakia all the way to New York City in 1946 after the war ended.
“A painting is not just a painting,” he said.
“Sometimes there are happy stories, but there are also sad stories, and they need a place to go too.”
He showed me a portrait of his grandfather that he painted, an old man in a grayish uniform with the Star of David on his left sleeve.
“Not even my saddest stories can compare to this.” I said.
“And I am so glad they can’t.” He laughed and put his painting behind his desk and sat down in his chair.
“My dad left when I was five.” I said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“He was quite funny, I think.” I lowered my voice.
“Actually, I only remembered very little about him. My parents got a divorce. He lives in Berlin now.”
“Berlin?” He looked surprised and leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk.
“I’m sorry, Emma. But, I like the idea. Maybe this will help you remember him.”
And so on the next day, Mr. Kisch announced in class that the new art project was going to be “beloved memories” in the style of a famous artist. I painted a
portrait of my father in the style of René Magritte because he was my mother’s favorite painter.
In three weeks when I finished my painting, it was Parents Day at school. I knew my mother didn’t like the idea of meeting other parents, which would involve small talk about families, but she said she looked forward to meeting my teachers and learning about my classes.
Naturally, I was excited for my mother to meet Mr. Kisch since they were both painters.
“Mrs. Sullivan, your daughter is extremely talented," he said to my mother as he brought out my portfolio.
“These are all the works that she’s done in my class. Her latest painting is her best so far, in my opinion.”
“Mom, it’s dad.”
I said this proudly, as I looked at my painting and then at my mother. My mother smiled at me and looked back at the painting, but she was silent for a long time.
Mr. Kisch continued, “I’m actually putting together a small art exhibit of my own works and would like to include a few of my students,” he looked at me, “I haven’t told you yet, Emma, but I’d like to include this painting of yours if that is okay with you. I think it’s excellent.”
“Emma, could you give me and your teacher a minute?” My mother said to me as she pointed to the door. I went out to the hall, but I pressed my ear against the door and eavesdropped.
“Kisch. Please, call me Jacob.”
“Jacob. I really appreciate you recognizing her work, and it’s nice to see a teacher putting in so much effort. Believe me, I wish mine did when I was her age.”
They both laughed and Mr. Kisch mumbled something I couldn’t make of.
“I just don’t know if this is right for her. She’s had a difficult childhood, with her father leaving and everything. You know, seems like she’s told you.”
“I understand, Mrs. Sullivan.” Mr. Kisch sounded baffled, yet reassured at the same time. “Yes, she’s told me a little … I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to –– I understand it brings back some memories. But I think it’s a way of coping, really.”
Mr. Kisch continued, “I encourage my students to confront the past through the art they create. It’s really nothing more than an expression. This class, well, the canvases they paint on really, are just safe rooms for messing things.”
My mother said something to Mr. Kisch, but I couldn’t hear what she said. Next I heard my mother’s footsteps coming towards the door, and I quickly moved away as it opened.
“Come on, Emma.”
She put her hand on my back as we started walking.
“It was very nice to meet you, Jacob.” She turned around to say goodbye to Mr. Kisch.
My mother was quiet on the way home. I knew I had upset her with the painting of my father. When I asked her what she thought about my painting, she
said it was good art, but she didn’t want that piece to be shown at Mr. Kisch’s art show. When I asked her why, she stopped the car by the side of the road and looked at me.
“Don’t do this to me,” she said.
“What are you talking about, mom?” I saw her eyes begin to water.
“There’s nothing more worth knowing or remembering about your father, other than how he left because he didn’t love us anymore.”
She looked for a handkerchief in her purse as tears streamed down her face.
“He was going to leave us. It wasn’t Berlin. It was way before Berlin. After you were born –– he just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t for him.”
I took her hand and said I was sorry, but what was I sorry for? My father left us because he didn’t want to be my father, and all these years I had blamed my mother for protecting me from learning the truths, when I did not know how the truths could hurt me more than what I thought happened.
“Why did he write us then?” I asked... “Why did he say he would come home?”
“I don’t know, Emma. I guess it was easier.”
My mother held my hand tight.
When we got home, my mother didn’t have a cigarette or a glass of white wine like she usually did before she made dinner. Instead, she said she was tired and needed to lie down, and asked that I cook something for myself. When I brought a bowl of pasta into her room, she was asleep with soft piano music playing on her gramophone. Outside her half-opened windows, the barred owls started to hoot. That night, I dreamed of a strange man. The man did not have a face, but his voice comforted me.
When I graduated from high school, Sara had moved to Boston to work for The Globe. She said she did not think she would ever leave New York. Before she left, she visited us and told me about the first time that she and my mother visited Boston in the winter when they were sophomores at Smith.
“I will always remember how the strong northeastern wind blew my hat away.”
She looked at my mother and they both started laughing.
“Is it true that you had an English class with Sylvia Plath?” I asked Sara once on the phone when I was reading Ariel, which I had checked out from the library.
Sara called us every week. And when the new year came, she said she had forgiven the Bostonian winter.
While I had originally planned on attending my mother’s alma mater in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the end I chose to go to Sarah Lawrence College because I wanted to stay close to my mother. After Sara moved, my mother became chronically ill and spent most days at home. She continued to paint, more or less, but she declined an invitation from a new art gallery in Manhattan that wanted to showcase her new pieces, which were self-portraits she named “the mind of a woman.” She said it wasn’t the right time.
“Emma, darling,” she said to me one night before we went to bed.
“I did it. I didn’t think I would be able to do all that I wanted to do, including
Under her doctor’s order, she gave up smoking, but she told me that cigarettes were not what made her ill. Soon, we found out that she had leukemia. She had made me promise that I would not tell Sara, but as she was hospitalized the following year, I phoned Sara and she was coming to New York in a week.
It was uncertain just how long my mother was going to remain in the hospital. It was uncertain whether my mother was to going to make it in the end. My mother kept her spirits up on most days, and on most days she read in her hospital bed. I had wanted to take a semester off to be able to be with my mother most of the time, but she would not allow me to. I had just started my last semester at Sarah Lawrence.
“You are so close,” she said to me. “I can’t wait to be at your graduation.”
One evening, when I was going to bring her more books from home, I saw a copy of Renata Adler’s Speedboat on her nightstand. I found an old envelope sticking out of the book that she had used as a bookmark. It was a letter from Sara dated a month ago. I couldn’t help but read it.
"Mary, since we agreed to not speak further on the phone about this ––
I hope this letter finds you happy and warm. I am still set to return on the 20th of April, which is Julia’s due day. I am sorry to hear of your dreams. We will talk when I am there, but don’t think that it was George. We all have weird dreams. All the time. Don’t punish yourself for what he did. It was an accident and you did what you.."
A thunder broke out in the sky and knocked me back to life. I tucked the letter back into the envelope and put the book back on her nightstand; I decided not to bring it.
When I got to the hospital, the doctor told me that she didn’t have much time. As I sat by her bed that night, she told me that she felt at peace. She said that she hadn’t felt peaceful in a long time, and strangely, her illness had brought her more peace than panic. I held her hand in my hand and put my head next to her arm as we slowly fell asleep to the sound of rain.
The next morning, my mother’s eyelids stopped fluttering and she was no longer in pain. When Sara arrived at the hospital, we cried in each other’s arms. I was sorry that I did not call her earlier, but she said I had done everything right.
Sara stayed with me in the house and took care of me until I finished college. How I was able to graduate was a miracle because as soon as my mother was gone, my world collapsed. By April’s end, Sara’s younger sister had a baby, and she became a real aunt.
At my mother’s funeral, I was surprised to see how many people had come. People that I had never known and never met. Some of them were people from art galleries all around New York City, some were people who had purchased her art,
and some were her friends from Smith.
“People read the obituary.” Sara said to me.
That night at dinner, I told Sara about reading the letter she wrote my mother back in December, the letter that mentioned my father’s name and some accident.
She put down her fork and held her face in her palms for a while before she looked up at me.
“Emma,” she said, “the ultimate truth that I can attest to is that your mother really loved you more than she loved herself.”
“In fact, she hated herself,” she continued. “She didn’t like how her life turned out.”
“What do you mean? She had a successful career,” I said.
“She didn’t think so. She didn’t think she had a successful marriage, therefore she didn’t have a successful life.”
She told me that my father actually got fired from his company after he was offered the position in Berlin, so he never went to Berlin. He would not tell my mother why he got fired, but he relapsed shortly after. My father had become an alcoholic after I was born; my mother thought it was because he couldn’t handle fatherhood. He had been sober for over a year after he was involved in a car accident when I was two, and he was doing well for a while, but after he lost his job, he became abusive. He blamed my mother for his sufferings. He despised my mother’s career as an artist because it was “too comfortable” compared to his. On some nights when my father was drunk, he hit my mother and pressed lit cigarettes on the back of her neck. The night before my father’s departure, my mother resisted his violence. When he chased after her wielding an empty wine bottle, my mother was terrified and ran out of the house. She got into my father’s car and started it. He ran after her and threw himself in front of the car to stop her, but the car stopped him.
“She ran over him,” Sara said as she choked up.
“I am so sorry, Emma. She was haunted ever since that night. Those dreams she told me. The man in her dreams that she believed to be your father, a man without a face. She told me that your father haunted her every day since that night.”
I stared at my plate. I felt as if my mind had floated out of my body because I felt paralyzed, and yet I was overwhelmed by the sounds around me – the owls, the crickets, the breeze moving the leaves outside the windows, the sound of my own breathing – the sounds were deafening.
“Emma, are you all right?”
Sara reached across the table for my hand and pulled me back to life.
“The man without a face…” I found myself gasping for air and took a sip from the glass of water that Sara handed me. “I know him.”
“I had a dream just like that when I was in high school. The strangest thing.”
Sara covered her mouth with both her hands, and we looked at each other for a while before she continued.
“She called me the next day, told me what happened, and, she must’ve stayed up all night.”
“Did the police come?”
“Never? What about his friends and family?”
“Never. Mary told me that your father had alienated everyone he knew, including his own parents, who lived in Oregon, if I’m remembering right. He didn’t have a good temper.”
She continued, “See, that’s the thing that I could not understand. It was like he never lived. Nobody came looking for him. Nobody called your mother. It was like he just evaporated.”
“What did she do with the––” I looked up at Sara and could not utter the word “corpse.”
“She buried him.”
Sara let out a long sigh of despair, stood up, and led me into the kitchen, where the door opened into our backyard. She turned on the light on the porch, and suddenly I realized that the tree in the back of our yard had grown so big over the years, the branches extending across the yard like long arms reaching out to the house for an embrace. Underneath the tree, there was the chair that my mother used to sit in when she painted outside. I looked up and saw my mother’s balcony, I imagined her leaning against the railing, smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of white wine while classical music played on her gramophone in the bedroom. Suddenly I realized that I had been living in a house full of things so familiar yet so strange to me at the same time.
“I am so sorry, Emma.”
Sara put her arm around my shoulders, and I was reminded of the times my mother put her arm around my shoulders just like that.
“It wasn’t my place to say anything to you. I am so sorry.”
That night, the man without a face came back to me, but this time he begged me to forgive him. He begged me to forget him. The next morning, I took the mask off the wall and carried it with me into the yard. I walked towards the tree, intimidated by its height. I dug a hole next to the tree with my fingers, and the sun came out as I returned the mask to the faceless man underground.