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Millions of masks have been made since the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic. What’s one more? I was privileged to be selected to create a mask for the Costume Professionals For Wage Equity Masquer-AID Charity Auction to benefit The Actors Fund!.  Whew! Say that three times fast. The Auction will be live on May 27 - June 10.

After I submitted my application, graciously brief, I spent a few days thinking about what my mask would be. Mask construction is a good portion of my professional background; I’ve even been teaching sessions as part of the Olney Online Education Program. Creating a piece that exhibited all of my skills and creativity felt hollow. I quickly removed myself from the equation, my ego at least. 

And I began to think about Love.

Love itself is an action. There are unlimited ways to show love, to participate in love, and to receive love. Today the easiest way is to wear a mask. I have lived on the opposite side of the country from my family for over a decade now. My mother religiously sends me cards and I’ve lost count of how many are floating around between books, in boxes, framed, or standing on my shelf every day reminding me that I am loved. These cards are what influenced the creation of my mask.

I didn’t know much past that. 

I received word that I had been selected to create a mask and I had 12 days to build a mask worthy of Auction.  There was only a rough vision of the mask as I began, some decisions weren’t made until I had to sew.

The front of the mask is embroidered with the closings of cards I have received over the years from my mother and sister. Some go back to before 2010.  It was such a wonderful feeling to go back through all those cards from holidays, events, and even just Tuesdays and to see the physical manifestation of my mother’s love over time and distance.

I’m originally from Bullhead, City, Arizona. That’s a 37-hour drive without stops, and 5.5hrs in the air, not including the drive to/from the airports. I don’t get home often and it’s the only regret I have about what I’ve done with my career. Thankfully I am part of a wonderful home and family at Olney Theatre. Ten years ago I arrived at OTC for an eleven-month internship. It was a year full of hard work, many lessons learned, so much fun, and connections that have seen me through to today. When I returned to a full-time position two years ago it was like coming home. My coworkers, the apprentices, guest artists, and our audience, have become my family here in Maryland and have faithfully taken the place of my family-family.  

Last year my mom came to visit and she got to see Matilda on opening night (and several other nights and afternoons before she left). Not having seen a show that I worked on since I was in High School I had so much fun showing her around, introducing her, and yes, having her help iron shirts before the show. I’ve been very lucky to have parents that have always supported my career in theatre, even though my mom secretly prays that I quit everything and go home to hang out on her couch. I don’t get homesick very often, anymore, and part of that is because I have no doubt how much I am loved. 

When a mother can’t hold you with her arms she holds you with her words. 

With each “I Love You” that I embroidered I was able to surround myself in memories. At times like this when distance is our greatest weapon and masks our strongest armor these words are a talisman. Each time this or any mask is worn it is an act of love. It is saying to our neighbors that though I cannot hold you I love you.

I told my sister about my plan for the mask, opening with “Do you want to hear something sappy?” It is sappy but it’s true.

See the mask Melissa made and all the other masks up for auction here.

All of the “I love yous” are embroidered in white on white. You can’t see it from afar, but it’s there, entwined in the fibers. Words of love in an act of Love. The thread was my mother’s, she sent it to me so that I could use it - in an echo of my childhood. My mother used to have hobbies and then she had kids. One of those was cross-stitching and it felt so appropriate to use the embroidery floss that my mother gave up, for love, to create a new object of love.

The flowers and greenery on the front weren’t planned but they have meaning. Yellow Roses, pretty on the nose, my dad is from Texas and my mom is named Rose. Dill because we love to make pickles. Hyacinth (with the wrong leaves, but I don’t care!) which grew at my undergrad. I spent my entire first year of college in Virginia crrying because I was so homesick. For years my friends’ parents asked about ‘That crying girl from Arizona.’

The only time I cried at Olney because I missed home was at Christmas. We were in the middle of the run of Annie and the cast had decided to host a cabaret. My fellow apprentice, also, coincidentally from Arizona, sat in the back of the house and sobbed together to I’ll be Home for Christmas’  I don’t get to go Arizona for Christmas anymore, I’m backstage changing Actor’s pants and chasing them with water bottles and hairpins. But I am home. My mom is big on family traditions and that’s something that I Love about Olney. Over the holidays we watch the green room transform with door decorating. There’s food and games and gifts.  It’s really like having a giant extended family that you live and sweat with for three months straight. It makes me really not mind being away for the holidays (don’t tell my mom).

The interior of the mask is quilted. I didn’t decide on the pattern until I had to put thread to fabric. The rolling fields remind me of Iowa, where I went to graduate school and my mother was able to visit with my sister for my MFA graduation. I always drew birds like that when I was little. They make me smile.

Most of this will never be known to people who see this mask or even those who wear it, but process is something that is important to me, and each of these personal, meaningful details make the mask stronger. 

Most of what I do backstage will never be known to the people that see the show, or even some who are in it, but process is important to me, and each of these personal meaningful details makes the performance stronger. 

I suppose the throughline in all of this is love and family and taking the time to identify what have been the most important things in your life. 

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