It was my carpool night when I remembered that the bird mask was resting on the back seat where the girls from my daughter’s gymnastic team would soon sit. When I turned to check if it was still there, the fluorescent glow of the gym’s parking lot lights hit its eerily long white beak and hollowed out eyes in a manner that made me feel like a freak-mom for carting it around in my minivan for the last two months.
I’m embarrassed to say it’s just the latest move in my dance with the Medico della Peste, the plague doctor mask. Earlier that day I failed again to hand it over to the perplexed-looking person at Goodwill.
My son Leo brought the mask back from Venice when he went to Italy the summer after fifth grade. My friend Ilaria is from Milan. We met as founding members of the self-proclaimed Neurotic Mothers Group that spontaneously formed on our sons’ first day of kindergarten seventeen years ago. It was an oddball group of capable but anxious women, mostly first time mothers, that hovered at the end of the hall to compare worries.
Ilaria’s son and Leo became fast friends. By third grade Ilaria promised that if the boys were still good buddies at the end of elementary school she would take Leo on their family’s summer visit to Italy. I still have a clear memory of Leo’s only phone message from his Italian adventure bellowing out from an old school answering machine – “It’s Leo. Happy Father’s Day from Venice!”
Although the Medico della Peste is considered one of the typical masks of the Venice Carnival, its true origin dates from the 17th century and credits Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII, as the likely inventor. He designed the mask and costume for doctors during the Bubonic plague that ravaged Europe, killing nearly two-thirds of the population. Plague doctors wore the protective dress when they visited their patients. Below is Charles de Lorme’s description of the full gear.
The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.
In 1630, Venice was devastated by the plague, losing 46,000 of its 140,000 inhabitants which likely contributed to the downfall of the Venetian Republic. Over the centuries the mask’s association with death has lessened and it has evolved to become one of the most popular costumes worn during Carnival.
When Leo returned, he placed his newly acquired mask on his bookshelf. A few years later it made its way to the back of his closet. I knew it was in his room but it was not until four years ago, when we moved, that I became aware of mask’s influence.
Anyone who knows me will confirm that I have a getting-rid-of-stuff super power. It protects me from being swayed by sentimentality or emotion on my mission to unburden myself and others of the clutter that holds them prisoner. My rule for stuff is simple; if the item is neither useful nor beautiful then it needs to find a new home or purpose.
The bird mask is my kryptonite. Since our move I have tried to give it away a gazillion times, sell it at garage sales, and send it back to college with Leo. The mystery for me becomes evident at the moment when I should close the transaction – I can’t. It’s like the mask has me under a low-grade possession that doesn’t cause me any harm except for the fact that I cannot rid myself of the thing.
I’ve researched the Venice Carnival and the mask’s history in search of answers and scoured my motives to find the key to my release. I can’t point to a single rational reason why I cannot let go of the mask.
I know this sounds crazy but each time I’m at the edge of giving it away, I get this gnawing feeling that the mask is like a thread, that if released, will unravel my entire life. Maybe this is how hoarders feel about every item in their house.
So I’m stuck with the mask. It’s still in the back of my minivan. I’ve stopped explaining myself to the man at Goodwill because there really isn’t an explanation. He just rolls his eyes and asks if I would like a receipt for the other items.