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Behind the mask: At 66 coming to terms with embracing the new me

BY GAYLE KIRSCHENBAUM | On March 16, 2020, I went undercover. Coronavirus was unleashed and New York City was struck down by it. Most businesses came to a halt. Several retail stores near me boarded up their windows and the streets were like a ghost town. We were warned not to leave our house unless we had to.

My beloved city was under siege. It was the epicenter. Hospitals were overwhelmed — they couldn’t handle all the cases nor hold the number of bodies in their morgues. So refrigerated trailers were parked outside to hold the overflow of the deceased.

Makeshift hospitals were created. Mt. Sinai put up tents filled with beds in Central Park. The Jacob Javits Convention Center was converted into a hospital. I’ll never forget the day I was on my daily bike ride scoping out and documenting what was happening to my home town, when I noticed the U.S.N.S. Comfort ship pulling into New York City Harbor. My eyes welled up remembering 9/11 when I was standing along the Hudson River just 30 blocks away watching the Twin Towers burn and I heard a jet overhead, thinking it was the terrorists again, but I looked up and saw it was our military, an F-19 fighter jet. We weren’t alone. We were getting help.

On March 30, 2020, I felt the same way. The U.S.NS Comfort ship was there to care for the excess patients.

Reading, hearing and seeing the stories, I knew how contagious this virus was and, although I went outside, I took all the precautions I could think of. At that time, it was impossible to buy a mask. They were all sold out everywhere, including on Amazon, where they did have bandanas, and I purchased a package of purple ones.

Even though vinyl and latex gloves were also out of stock, I had some in my home from a skin condition I had on my hands. I was so grateful to find them. I left my apartment armored. Since it was winter, and chilly, I wore my long down winter coat, heavy leggings, which I covered with my rain pants that I would use for inclement weather, vinyl gloves covering my regular warm gloves, a hat, my purple bandanna covering my face and my prescription eyeglasses, which shielded my eyes. Having heard that people were getting the virus also through their eyes, I felt well protected.

Although I’m not a big makeup person, I’d decided right before we were hit by the virus that I was old enough (ha ha — in my mid-60s) to emphasize my best feature at the time, my lips. I had just bought a variety of lipsticks, including gloss and lip liners. As my lips were hidden now, there was no reason to paint them and get my masks dirty from it.

Due to the unavailability of masks, a fashion designer in my building kicked in and started making them and handed them out to the rest of us. Once again, I felt lucky.

Many of my neighbors were not in good shape due to age and illnesses, so I did some shopping and cooking for them. Each time that I’d come and go from my building with my bike and I’d say hi to the staff, who worked tirelessly to help the tenants, they had no idea it was me. Now that we were all covered up, most neighbors could no longer recognize each other.

Each time I returned to my apartment I’d spray my bike, clothing and shoes in the hall with Lysol from the one can I had left over from pre-COVID. As soon as I entered my apartment, I took off all my layers and immediately washed my hands for 20 seconds and put on fresh clothing that was not exposed to the airborne virus outside.

Days, weeks and months passed. Many of us turned to Etsy to get our supplies, including masks and shields. Soon Amazon vendors had enough of this merchandise to go around. The shortage was over. We had what we needed when we needed it. Our faces were properly protected, hidden from public view.

We went from 2020 to 2021 and, with the advent of the highly contagious Delta variant, we were still wearing masks, even those of us who were vaccinated, though not wearing them as often.

When I removed my mask, I was excited. It was time to take out my untouched brand-new lipstick from early 2020 and highlight my best facial feature. With my lip liner in hand, I leaned into my 20x magnifying mirror attached to my medicine cabinet. Needing +3.5 reading glasses, I wasn’t going to trust doing this without seeing well what I was doing.

As I stared into the mirror, I was sure something was wrong. Was the mirror dirty? Did I get something on my face? No to both. What was wrong was my face? Where did all these lines come from? Surrounding my lips were several vertical creases. When I looked further, I saw more wrinkles. Is this temporary, I wondered? Did this happen to my face due to my skin not being able to breath for long periods of time behind the tight covers I’d been wearing? Will this go away if I use lots of moisturizer? As the days and weeks passed, I obsessively used creams, ointments and oils on the lines around my mouth. It did nothing.

Eighteen months after I put on a mask, the signs of my aging were deep and emotionally scarring. It was as if I had been away from myself for that period of time and had come back to visit and had now witnessed the substantial changes, as opposed to being with myself the entire time and seen the gradual aging process.

Now, I’m working on coming to terms with the new me and embracing my well-earned creases, jowls and crow’s feet. I’m starting to see them as a sign of wisdom and beauty. I have to admit that there is something comforting at times to slip on my mask, put on my sunglasses and head out. I can keep my magical maturing to myself.

Kirschenbaum, a West Village resident, is a filmmaker, TV producer, writer, photographer, coach and public speaker.


  1. Walter Goodman Walter Goodman October 2, 2021

    As a 65-year-old male, I admire your honesty and sincerity. Just one question. It’s just extremely hard to understand how a jet fighter plane flying overhead represents safety, or being cared for, to the author. Since when did one killing machine repair harm done by another one, or bring back innocent lives from the dead? I would argue that the reverse is true: that our obsession with the latest military hardware and military dominance is directly responsible for what happened on September 11.

  2. Karen Rempel Karen Rempel October 2, 2021

    Dear Gayle,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I too noticed an acceleration of the aging process during COVID. I believe it’s down to the duress we’ve all been under. Constant anxiety about an uncertain world, which has come to feel the norm, but is nonetheless taking a toll on our systems.

    And yes, we’ve earned these marks of our courage!


  3. mary reinholz mary reinholz October 2, 2021

    Gosh, this writer has really gone to a lot of trouble to detail her protections against covid only to discover that her masks didn’t stop the aging process. What a revelation. Having my share of facial creases and wrinkles in old age doesn’t strike me as a traumatic event or a signal of some momentous change in personal identity (whatever that is), but it sure makes me welcome masks. The more, the merrier.

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