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I used to collect shoes. I have all colours. I enjoy a wedge heel for work, flats for downtown shopping excursions and stilettos for a special occasion. I have running shoes for summer and winter, roads and trails. I have fancy sandals for an evening on a restaurant patio, Birkenstocks for trips to the beach and cheap flip-flops for the gross shower stalls at the gym. My shoe collection is legendary.

Now, I collect masks (and I hope you do, too).

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It’s not like coins or stamps or any other collection. No items have historical significance, antique or resale value, nor any great sentimental meaning. It’s a collection born of necessity, but strangely, one that has become a source of comfort during these peculiar pandemic times.

I’m a front-line health care worker, so much of my collection is transient. I have the hospital-issued non-clinical mask that I don on arrival each morning as I enter the building to be screened. I wear this through the corridors to my office, where I place it in a paper bag, to be retrieved and worn again as I make my way out of the hospital at the end of the day.

Once in my clinic, I fasten on my patient care mask, which I wear throughout my shift and sometimes, for several shifts, in the communal effort to conserve PPE (unless, as happened the other day, I forget to remove it in the break room as I attempted to scarf down a piece of avocado toast. Despite the fact that it is still technically protective, the outer layer of gross green slime is a little unprofessional).

During my shift, depending on the types of procedures I may need to perform or the types of patients with whom I’m working, I may briefly change into something more protective or add a face shield. Once, early in the pandemic, when we were running low on equipment, some of us ended up with kids' masks patterned with pastel cartoon dinosaurs. This was the envy of a number of my pediatric patients that day. One six-year-old even shyly asked if he might have one to take home. It was a sign of what was to come: children asking for masks, rather than stickers, to take home from their hospital visit.

I’ve attempted to customize my disposable collection. I’ve tried every device the internet suggests might save my ears from the discomfort caused by hours of friction from elastics. Some of my colleagues are fans of the ingenious (and pretty) headbands with buttons. Others swear by a paper clip that fastens the elastic ear loops behind the head. Still others have found that the 3-D printed plastic pieces that rest at the back of the head provide relief. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that the shape of my skull precludes the successful use of these adaptations. My attempts have resulted in short-term success (just long enough for me to think “wow, that works perfectly!”) before the fastener creeps up the back of my head and springs off the top (once to the complete delight of the child I was swabbing at the time).

At home, I have acquired a more permanent collection. I sewed a number of face coverings from fabric my sister found at our family cottage, leftover from craft projects completed years ago with my children, nieces and nephews. These masks feature dragonflies and grasshoppers in primary colours, more dinosaurs (but in neon), superhero logos and John Deere tractors.

These are my happy masks. I wear them on days when I am tired, disillusioned and anxious about the state of the world. I wear them when I need the consolation of memories of times when climbing on monkey bars and sharing ice cream cones were not prohibited in the name of public health. I have received masks from friends and colleagues. These, too, give me strength on tough days, knowing I have people who love me and care that I am protected.

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I have masks I purchased from a local business. They’re not the most fashionable, nor really very comfortable, but I recommend them to everyone, as my small contribution to the economy of my community.

And yes, I have a number bought online, mostly from ads that presciently appear on my social-media accounts and appeal to my inner Nancy Pelosi. These are varied: pretty and vibrant, unique or symbolic, plain or serious. In the same way I appreciate the perfect shoes to complete an outfit, I enjoy having the right mask to complement my choice of apparel. It’s nice to have a selection, since you just never know what you’re going to need. The only certainty is that you’re going to need to be protected, and to protect those you love, those you work with and those in your community.

That’s the weird part of all this. I don’t often wear a mask outside of work because I don’t go anywhere that isn’t essential. I will probably never wear most of these. Who wears a leopard print mask and where? No woman in her late 50s should be seen wearing the John Deere logo. My black satin with the velvet elastic? What am I hoping for?

But you just never know. Not too long ago, I needed to make a quick trip to the pharmacy. It was the first day it felt like fall outside. I threw on a denim jacket, put my hair back, grabbed my leather bag and headed to the mask bin by the front door to find the perfect match. Right on top lay the damask cotton version with the burnt orange fall leaf motif, still in its package!

Now if only I’d added those chestnut suede ankle booties to my shoe collection last year.

Kristy Brundage lives in Kingston, Ont.

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