Shame is a mask

A glowering cedar mask – maybe Haida in origin – hung in my father’s den, the colours vibrant even after decades spent outside. Its hollow interior was rough with hair-like fibres that scraped me when I tried to heft and hold it in front of my face. I thought if I could get inside it, I could hide from the empty eyes that followed me everywhere. My mother yelled at me to put it down. I think it scared her when I disappeared inside the over-sized features, my eyes blinking through the holes, like a peeping Tom.

Despite the gargoyle presence of the mask, I loved being in the den because it was lined with glass cased bookshelves and had an old Craftsman-style wooden desk, drawers divided by neat compartments for writing tools. A long skinny drawer right under the main desk held handsome velum for writing really important letters. Inside the bookshelves, my dad placed tantalizing treasures that drew me to them – two dried seahorses the colour of 200 year old parchment, and a slice of shale with a fossilized leaf. And he had stickers. These came in books on art and you cut out the famous pictures, wet the back and stuck them in the right box on the right page on top of the right description. I didn’t know there was a proper order until dad found one of the stickers on the wrong page on top of the wrong description. For a time I was banned from the den. When I snuck back in, I was afraid the mask would tell on me.

At Christmas time the mask was decorated inside and out with coloured lights, so its open mouth and blank eyes radiated red and green and blue and yellow, like a demonic clown. Ho, ho, ho!

My mother hated the mask. But my father insisted it was a rare prize and it moved with us from home to home, finally landing in our run-down family-owned motel on Vancouver Island. Guests filled out their registration cards in the fluorescent lit lobby watched by it’s black eye-holes. When my father died, the mask disappeared. I was glad because my fear went with it.

No one in the family knows for sure where the mask came from but the story told by my father, larded with embellishment, was that he climbed a totem pole and sawed it off. I am sick with shame that this might be true because of the violent disrespect implied by the story and the action. I suspect it wasn’t true, as so many of his stories weren’t. Pot-bellied in his later years, my father was not athletic and I cannot picture him climbing a pole like a lithe, muscular lumberjack, weapon in hand, hanging on to a teetering 90 foot pole, decapitating it, and then carrying the mask and the saw, back down.

The truth I prefer is that the mask was probably a gift. Dad was the manager of a fish packing plant and he was given all kinds of objects from the indigenous fishermen whose catches he bought. I hope my theory is true but I have a nagging fear there may be another truth.


6 thoughts on “Shame is a mask

  1. Cynthia Jobin May 2, 2015 / 4:47 pm

    This is the kind of writing I like, Sue, clearly and well spoken but full of imagery and coming from a distinct, individual voice. I always find stories from real life more compelling than fiction. Maybe it’s because I have enough imagination to make up my own fictions…and I find the real world and the truth much, much stranger and interesting than any imagined ones! ( Loved the bit about putting the stickers in the wrong place…I was always doing things like that…jumping in and enjoying the process before I understood the rules!)


    • redosue May 3, 2015 / 11:36 pm

      I still jump in and start before reading the rules, too, Cynthia. It’s my impatient nature.


  2. Ellen Morris Prewitt May 4, 2015 / 3:23 pm

    I love that you moved to get on the other side of the mask to get away from the eyes. And, for the record, the image of you father shimmying up the pole and lopping off the mask is one of those things that will stay with me.


    • redosue May 4, 2015 / 4:44 pm

      I’m all about controlling the situation, Ellen! If you knew my father, the image would be even more comical (if it wasn’t also so horribly wrong).


  3. Rosanna May 9, 2015 / 1:32 pm

    I hope this story will be in your first memoir, because it’s such a nice read. I wish though that you had asked your father – before he banned you from the den – to give you a chance to redo the stickers thing. Your;e good at that, Sue, in redoing. This blog is certainly a wonderful redo. 🙂


    • redosue May 9, 2015 / 3:18 pm

      Thanks, Rosanna. I have to redo because I make so many mistakes, but thankfully I learn.


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