Masking the Pandemic. Creative non-fiction by Wendy Dodek

I call my creation a Japanese mask but no Japanese person would consider it a real mask. Taking a cotton handkerchief, I made a few simple folds, inserted two rubber bands and instantly I have a functional mask for the coronavirus pandemic. My self-made mask is a soft green floral pattern, made from a handkerchief I acquired when I lived in Tokyo. I received so many as presents that I’m not certain who gave this one to me. I believe it might have been part of a gift box I received 34 years ago from a group of nurses who were my English students.

Every Friday night I would walk from my tiny apartment 15 minutes to take the orange train for 20 minutes and then transfer to a bus for another 20 minutes to reach the Kyorin University Hospital where I would teach 12 young nurses and one older stern, mother hen type nurse-supervisor. At the end of every session, with a deep bow and two extended arms, supervisor Miss Kikutake would hand me my fee – the yen always placed in a small envelope. In addition to the money, frequently this tiny woman with gray speckled hair would reach up and hand me a beautifully wrapped large gift.

It is customary for patients, about to be discharged, to give farewell presents to their nurses. I believe most of my gifts came from this large and never-ending supply of gifts. What to do with all of the delicious boxes of Western style cookies, Japanese sweet bean treats and handkerchiefs? Give them to the English teacher. When I first started receiving handkerchiefs, I was baffled. I never needed handkerchiefs in the US. Indeed, I thought of them as old-fashioned and unsanitary. I’d much rather blow my nose in a tissue and then quickly discard it. Yet, no Japanese person would think of leaving home without carrying at least one handkerchief with them and never, ever would these handkerchiefs be used for nasal secretions.

Over time, I observed handkerchief culture and I, too began carrying them in my purse. My handkerchief choice was usually seasonally based: cherry blossom pinks for spring, crimson maple leaves for fall, irises in summer and I can’t recall the winter pattern. Like everyone else, I would take my handkerchief, dab my forehead during the sweltering Tokyo summers and dry my hands after visiting restrooms that offered soap and water but no towels.

When I returned to the US in 1988, I had perhaps, 50 brand-new handkerchiefs of exquisite colors and designs packed in my luggage. I offered them up to friends, however, some politely refused, finding no value in these beautiful cloth squares. I then began to wrap gifts in the handkerchiefs, instead of using wrapping paper, telling the recipient to consider the versatility of this colorful little cotton fabric and hopefully, some did.
In my closet now, I have just six handkerchiefs left. Just enough to repurpose these handkerchiefs when the US medical community reversed course and began to urge the public to wear masks. I reached into the back of my closet and began to examine my unused stock. These were not my favorite handkerchiefs – those have worn out or have been given away as gift wrap to friends. Still, I can look at the handkerchiefs that remain and admire their beauty.

I plan to be draped in fashionable Japanese cloth during this pandemic and I will hope for protection – for me and for all those around me. I wish I could offer my gratitude to Miss Kikutake, the head nurse for amply supplying me with these handkerchiefs, yet I doubt she would remember me if she is still alive; surely, she’d be in her 90s now. Yet I can picture her smile as she handed me box after box of treats, some to be consumed quickly and others to last for a lifetime.


Wendy Dodek was a Lead Educator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston prior to the pandemic. Fortunately, she is still able to enjoy her other passion, writing during these difficult times.

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