I present for your entertainment the brief but painful tale of my foray into the world of body modification, and how my seventy-three-year-old mother managed to both steal my thunder and make me feel like a privileged little shit.
I got my tattoo later in life, some time around age 41 or 42. It was something that I’d wanted to do for years, but in all that time I had never been capable of settling on an image. There were three basic concepts that scrolled through my mind’s eye, and each one felt powerful, personal and perfect. But three tattoos were two too many for me, and committing to that one-and-only and forever-and-ever was harder — I admit it — than it was to commit to my second husband. I suppose it was because I’d already lived through the pain of divorce, but I’d never experienced anything like laser surgery.
The images were simple ones: A ginkgo leaf. A dragonfly. A horseshoe crab. Each represented a time and place in my life and each spoke to me as prehistoric artifacts — living fossils that had survived the eons to thrive in the modern world. It takes a lot of grit to make it through the millennia. Ginkgos have been found in fossils 270 million years old. Enormous dragonflies with 30-inch wingspans lived 325 million years ago. Horseshoe crabs are virtually unchanged after 450 million years.
That’s a lot of grit.
I have a friend, an old friend and a true one, whom I met in Italy when I was in my early twenties. It was love at first sight, although the really satisfying kind that doesn’t require a physical consummation. His name is Stefano, and, among his many talents, he’s an amazing tattoo artist. Every time I went back for a visit, I’d spend hours hanging around his studio, smoking Gauloises blondes and drinking tiny cups of espresso that he’d order in from the bar around the corner. Maybe he’d drive me around Rome on his motorcycle or in his vintage Citroën. He’d ask if he could give me a tattoo, and I’d always say yes, if he would promise to give me a giant full-color image of the Colosseum across my culo. We’d laugh, and then he’d play me his latest song on the electric guitar and maybe we’d stroll over to il Pulcino Ballerino for tagliolini with lemon.
Finally, one visit, I was ready. I flew over with that second husband, whom I’d committed to like crazy, and our son Calvin, who was three or four at the time. I had everything I wanted. I was ready to celebrate. I chose the dragonfly.
The experience itself was so full of joy that it was almost like a birth. Calvin was in Stefano’s studio with me, as were two other true loves of mine: Adele and Valeria. The five of us laughed so hard through the entire process that it’s hard to believe Stefano was able to keep the lines straight. Like the pain of childbirth, it was more of an unfamiliar pressure than a real discomfort, and Stefano was careful to keep the work to brief fluctuations and to rest when my eyes went wide in surprise.
My dragonfly has the quality of something from a dream. It has pale gossamer wings, etched in grey ink so that they rest transparently on my right shoulder. A faint shadow effect makes it appear ready to leap off of my skin at any moment, and its bright aqua abdomen and thorax are like unaffected jewels. It’s one of my most prized…well…
What is a tattoo?
Is it a possession? A body part? A work of art?
It’s a gift.
It’s one of my most prized gifts.
All of this is to say that my tattoo is the product of a great deal of premeditation seasoned by the joy of a lifetime of relationships.
Which is where my seventy-three year old mother enters our tale.
My mom is a piece of work.
As I type this, she’s off on a two-week road trip through the coastal towns of northern Turkey — just her and her photographer boyfriend. This despite her previously arranged tour of Turkey having been cancelled due to security concerns following civil unrest and a series of bombings. When I read the Travel Department’s warnings about restricting travel to Turkey, I asked her to reconsider. But she wouldn’t hear of it, assuring me that they love Americans there and that she would be perfectly safe. I asked if she preferred that we sell her house or empty her bank account when we get the call from the kidnappers and left it at that. I know better than to argue.
My mom was a good girl for years. And years and years. She dreamt of going to medical school, but she went to nursing school instead. She dreamt of riding a stallion over the burning sands of Egypt, but she got pregnant (with yours truly) and married a man she didn’t love instead. She dreamt of a life of adventure, but she ended up with three kids and a mortgage by age 26 instead. She worked hard, raised her children, went through the inevitable divorce, cared for her aging parents and finally retired. She had some good luck along the way, including being part of a generation that was able to take advantage of great pensions, full social security benefits, and tremendous investment returns. In short, she saved enough money to say, “screw you” to the world, and now she does whatever the hell she wants. Travel. Lunches with pals. Crossfit five days a week. Recently she told me that she joined a book club but never reads their books — she just attends to give her opinions about whatever the subject happens to be. That’s some hardcore “screw you,” if you ask me.
The year after I got my beloved dragonfly, my mom took a trip to Italy with her friend, Judy. When they returned, she made a beeline to my house and, eyes shining, shimmied her shirt down over her shoulder to reveal…a tattoo. Of a ladybug. In the exact spot where I have mine. She’d made a surprise visit to Stefano during her brief stay in Rome.
My heart fell.
From that day on, whenever anyone admires my tattoo and she happens to be anywhere within a 20-mile radius, she magically appears to sidle up slyly, pulling her shirt down to reveal her own body art. And, goddammit, her arms look more buff than mine thanks to all that Crossfit. My own carefully planned statement of joy is instantly downgraded on the insect rankings while hers becomes the center of attention and admiration. Not to mention inspiring coos about “matching mother-daughter tattoos.”
She makes me crazy.
But here’s the thing: I’ve spent my entire life doing whatever the hell I’ve wanted. Thanks to the timing of my birth and the family of distracted semi-intellectuals I was born into, I’ve always been free to do pretty much as I please, including spending years thinking about exactly what tattoo I wanted. My mom didn’t grow up with that luxury, and now she has it because she built it for herself.
Ladybugs aren’t particularly ancient or hardy. They’re a useful species, often released by gardeners to feast on aphids and other pests. They’re cute, harmless and named after the Virgin Mary. Come ON…that has to be the world’s worst tattoo.
The woman has grit.