Those all went away in March. What hang over the wainscoting now are 18 masks. They serve as a tableau of how a family in the United States tries to protect itself in 2020.
The first mask I pinched from a standard-issue emergency kit at work, but then I forgot about it when experts said masks for the general public were useless.
The next four I bought from Etsy, when experts said cloth masks were indispensable. I hired a seamstress to make a family pack, but I think she was overqualified: The adults’ were as stiff and suffocating as dress shirts, the kids’ too precious. Now, stretched and distorted, they look pathetic. The only thing standing between children and a pandemic should not be two swatches of gingham.
In June, I ordered a highly reviewed set of five from a major athleisure-wear conglomerate, and while I waited for them to get off back-order status, I also ordered a no-name-brand bandanna, which is really just a loop I pull up to my ears. It is white with black specks, and I like the way it looks on its hook, curled in a circle like a cat. But then I got a little panicky that I would need it in a hurry and not be able to find it, so I ordered a second one, which I leave in its package in a drawer in case my family has to flee the house in the middle of the night. My husband says this is unlikely, but he also said Donald Trump would never be elected president, so I no longer trust his predictions.
I also ordered two child-size bandannas from Amazon, on the theory that if my kids saw me wearing one, they would wear one, too. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Theirs are silky and celestial, in outer-space patterns, and sure enough, my children love them. My 4-year-old scrunches his around his neck like an ascot, and my 6-year-old shimmies into hers like a tube top. The notion that they would pull them over their faces, though, strikes my kids as absurd.
So for a few weeks, I just forced them to keep their distance when we left the house. But then my son began to refuse to go outside, and then to refuse to get out of his pajamas, and then to refuse to take off his overnight diaper. He spent a week in bed, soaked in urine, listening to the same audio book over and over. When I found out their old day-care center was authorized to open a summer camp, I swallowed hard and enrolled them, promising myself I would make the situation as safe as possible for everyone.
I polled neighborhood parents on what masks their young children tolerated and decided on a gender-neutral set of six from a progressive company, which makes some with straps that stretch around the head and stripes the colors of lemonade and swimming pools. My daughter rejected them because they did not have princesses. My son did not want his head touched. I sent the kids to camp in a ninja hood and an astronaut helmet, and they came home happier than I had seen them in weeks.
But the teachers were struggling. They kept tugging at their disposable masks, the texture of air filters. When my fancy athleisure-wear versions finally arrived, I donated two to the school, as well as a third bandanna, because I now feel compelled to keep the operation that makes them in business. My contributions were welcome but clearly not enough. I later spotted a couple of the teachers in line at a food bank and learned that another pays out of pocket to have the building deep-cleaned. Even though tuition is killing us, especially now that some of my freelance writing work has dried up, I’m trying to figure out how we can give a little bit more.
No wonder my husband has doubled down on his job. We’re only in Phase 2 of reopening here in Washington, D.C., but he’s gone back into the office, where he’s picked up another mask. It seems to be made out of men’s underwear; it droops over his chin like a frown. His employer furnished it free, as if wanting to acknowledge the risk workers were taking but also hoping to minimize the investment required to keep them safe. When I walk by it on the hook, I don’t even look at it.
In truth, not one of the masks we have is all that comfortable right now, when it’s so hot. That’s why I have moved on to face shields, made with a 3-D printer by a man in North Carolina and fastened with plastic clips to the brim of a visor. I have high hopes for them, even though they will make us look like a foursome of beekeeping golfers. Their effectiveness is also unproven, but what can I do?
In the absence of frequent testing with fast results, I’m taking a DIY approach to warding off mass infection. Every few weeks, I throw $10 and $20 bills at someone and cross my fingers. That this is my strategy — our national strategy, really — is, I suppose, a testament to the American spirit: energetic, entrepreneurial, tailored to the individual and oriented toward community and commercial solutions. It is also completely insane. Faced with the collapse of safety, security and sanity, my defense is an entryway of cotton and polyester face coverings. Dangling on their line of hooks, they are cheery as laundry, somber as artifacts.