Masks conceal, but they can also slip, and each slip brings a new surprise. Clearly, there has always been something unknown behind the facade, but when we do catch a glimpse of that other, hidden face, it is often very different from what we assumed or hoped for, or feared. […] having been granted a chance glimpse of what was once hidden, we are surprised, and altered, by finding that what we see is a far cry from what we had imagined. At such times, it’s not just that a secret has been laid open to view, it’s that our way of seeing changes, opening onto a wholly other world, familiar in some ways, vitally different in others.

It was during our holiday in Ostend that I first saw past the mask my mother kept for me. Of course, I knew her life was full of disappointments, but until then I hadn’t quite recognised that I was one of them.


A fortnight before she died, I went into her room and found her lying very still, her eyes closed, the July sunlight spilling from the window onto her dressing table. She seemed impossibly remote, wonderfully other, the way those we love sometimes seem when dreaming – and I entertained the brief fantasy that, if I could talk to her as she lay in that suspended state, I could make her see that I’d never have been happy with what she thought of as happiness.

That fantasy melted away, however, as I gazed at her face: serene, for the moment, unburdened, but just one more in a series of masks. Until then, I had assumed that all our masks were intended to conceal, and that what they concealed was the real self, a fixed entity who suffered pain and shame, a self that needed to be kept hidden, if only for its own protection or, in the case of my mother’s dismay, to protect others. If I had paid more attention back then, however, I might have understood that, of all our many life masks, none of them, not even the most fleeting or beatific, is any more true or false than any of the others.

John Burnside, ‘Sons and Mothers’.

Well, this had hit unexpectedly, a little too close to home.

My first encounter with Burnside, and I must say, something definitely did catch fire. 

This poignant piece is one of the collection of essays found in Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, in case you were interested.

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