Commemoration & Ink

Today is apparently National Tattoo Day…well there’s some question about it but I’m going to embrace the idea.

I have a lot of tattoos. I got my first tattoo when I was 17. It was a birthday gift from an older friend, and my mother signed a notarized statement saying that she gave permission for the artist to ink me.

It’s a butterfly. Everybody have a good laugh.

I decided to actually write about this because today is also the 13th anniversary of my mother’s death. She was 55, diabetic, in fairly good health, and then she was dead. It was a massive heart attack on account of heart disease we later learned. I was 19 and living in London. Yes it was every bit as horrible as you can imagine. You really don’t have to say you’re sorry in the comments. I’ve told this story a lot, and it’s been 13 years.

At that point, I had gotten another tattoo – a symbol for strength on the back of my right shoulder. Yes you can laugh at that one too. In the years that followed I gained a tramp stamp of flowers, a dragonfly on the front of my left shoulder and another symbol on one hip. That brings us to 2010. I was out of graduate school and living in DC working in political offices where I could pass for unblemished with simple clothing choices.

I decided I wanted my ink to mean more, and at the time I was making a decent living, so I found a wonderful tattoo artist in DC who could and would sit down and work with me to reform all the work I already had done. Susan was amazing and the first female tattoo artist I worked with. I wish I could go to DC for every touch up I need.

She was the first tattoo artist to tell me not to call it a tramp stamp. A woman’s lower back is a beautiful place to tattoo, and you should embrace it. She was the first responsible artist who made sure I had snacks and beverages when we did long sessions. She even helped me find a new artist when I left DC and wanted one more piece done. She went above and beyond.

Berkey_bwbackOver the course of six months she etched one of my favorite quotations from Little Women across my back, linking and covering old ink so it was one cohesive piece. And then right before I left DC, she performed tattoo triage on my lower back, turning flower vines I pointed at on a wall when I was 20 into a gorgeous vine of dogwood tree flowers that stretch from one hip to the other.

Both pieces commemorate my mom.

Though I’ve added to my back piece in the years since with a compass that more people point out than not, these two large pieces that are almost always hidden by clothing are my favorites. In a weird way, they are even more special because they were done by a woman – one who at the time I was going to that studio was the only female artist on staff and clearly loved by her coworkers.

So happy National Tattoo Day. Don’t let anyone tell you your lower back ink is trashy or that you’ll regret it when you’re older. Sure I have some pieces I pointed to on a wall permanently affixed to my body but they all remind me of very specific moments in time that I never want to forget. And the only people who get to see all but two of them are ones that I very selectively choose.

Yes, I have one more piece planned. I just haven’t found the right artist yet.

Surviving Mother’s Day Since 2001

photo 1The year is littered with land mines. Some are obvious, some less so.

I never really know when one will hit: standing over a stew in the dead of winter and dropping in frozen peas – never fresh – and remembering the time I did put in fresh (really fresh completely raw) peas and she ate it anyways; rolling over in bed at 3 AM and turning the last page of the book I stayed up to finish just like she would have.

The obvious ones are just that: her birthday, Christmas, the anniversary of her death, and today.

For all that it’s been thirteen years this July since she died, there are moments where it still socks me in the gut. I moved recently and found an envelope of photos from one of my siblings’ wedding. It’s the kind of thing I’m sure were actually returned to her that year. All the happy pictures of the groom at various ages. I don’t know why it’s in one of the boxes I’ve been carting around the East Coast for the last decade, but I’m fairly certain it was just one of those things that got put in my pile of things when we emptied her house. I am the keeper of albums, the repository for memories no one else remembers, the dishes that have no recipes.

photo 5Maybe it’s a girl thing. Or an only daughter thing.

My mom was pretty awesome. She had three kids. She loved being a mom. She loved being a mom so much that she went back to school at 50 and became a registered nurse so that she could get jobs at hospitals where they needed lactation consultants. We were all Le Leche League babies, carted around to meetings throughout our childhood and far more knowledgeable about breasts and reproduction than any normal 10 year old. There were years and years of embarrassed “Mom don’t” and “Do you have to?”s as she approached strangers in department stores, grocery stores, restaurants, anywhere really to coo over their babies and somehow unintrusively ask if they were breastfeeding.

She boycotted Nestle in the 80s because they were donating formula to poor countries with poor refrigeration and not explaining to the mothers that their babies would get sick – and could die – if that formula wasn’t kept chilled. I didn’t have a Nestle Crunch Bar for years, and I still default to Hersheys habitually.

She had a hundred cats, way too many books, was depressed, bought things for grandchildren that wouldn’t arrive until she’d been dead for 5 years because she was so excited to be a grandma, was diabetic, had the worst taste in wine, and drank grasshoppers in the spring with my godmother.

photo 3She died unexpectedly. There one day on the other end of the phone and gone the next. There’s a lot about those weeks and months that followed that I still don’t remember.

If I could call her on the phone today and say “Happy Mother’s Day” I’d do it right this minute. She would probably still be in bed, pinned by 3 or 4 my feline siblings and a stack of books. I imagine her voice would be groggy, but she’d tell me she loved me too and to call her back later.

Surviving Mother’s Day since 2001. It’s a thing I do now. Go hug your mom for me.