Friday, December 16, 2011


Janette slams her bedroom door and the sound of it echoes through the house.

I hadn’t meant to be so harsh with her, I honestly hadn’t, but when I saw what she’d done to herself I couldn’t keep my damn mouth shut.

She looked ridiculous, and it was far too revealing. But, as I sulk in my study, I can’t help feel like I’d been the one who’d crossed a line.

I remember years before, when I’d gotten my tattoo in university, how furious my mom had been when she found out a few months later when I came home for Christmas. She’d done her best not to comment on the tribal pattern I now had running up and down my arm, but she couldn’t stop sneaking horrified looks throughout our family dinner.

“Why?” She asked over dessert, when she could hold it in no more. “For God’s sake, why?”

I didn’t have an answer to that question, not one that would have satisfied her at any rate.

I’d done it because my friends all had tattoos, had piercings, and because I’d thought it was about time I had some work done on myself. I’d chosen the design because I’d liked the design, and given it little more thought than that. Because it was the nineties, and that was the style at the time.

I still like the way it looks on me, even now. It’s a beautiful piece of design and I’ve never regretted getting it.

Mom, however, wouldn’t be convinced, and the argument that followed her outburst quickly escalated into a screaming match that sent me out to the front porch to smoke cigarettes and fume, her to her room upstairs to pace and curse, and left the rest of the family sitting around the table, staring at one another with the kind of awkwardness only the holidays can bring.

It didn’t surprise me, the argument. These sorts of things had been happening more and more often on major family holidays, sometimes involving me and sometimes not, and I’d known the ink would catch me some amount of flack. It did surprise me, however, just how angry Mom had become, and how she’d sounded as though she honestly wasn’t just using the tattoo as a stand-in for unvoiced familial tension.

For whatever reason, she was actually bothered by my decision to have the work done, on my own body, in my own adult life.

It also surprised me when Grandma joined me on the front porch. She’d quit smoking before I was born, after all.

“Hey,” she told me in a voice that sounded much younger than her seventy-eight years, “don’t worry too much about her, she’ll get over it.”

“You figure? How can you be sure?” I asked, not really wanting to be roused from my sulk.

“Because,” she told me, smiling wryly, “we had the exact same argument the first time she came home for Thanksgiving in a miniskirt. I thought it made her look easy, and she thought it was just how things were done. We argued all weekend over it, yet as you can see, I’m still here, I’m still her mother and I still love her. My thoughts on her decisions about how to present herself to the world notwithstanding.”

“I guess…” I eventually replied.

“I know.” She told me, “I also had the same argument with my mother the first time I cut my hair short. I think every parent has it with their child at some point. Fashions change, and eventually you no longer have the energy or the inclination to change with them, and a few years after that young people start doing things that shock you. Your mother isn’t angry that you got tattooed, she’s angry that she got old enough to find you getting a tattoo shocking. Try not to hold it against her too much, she really does care.”

I considered this a moment, then nodded, finally smiling a little.

“I guess that makes sense. But I’m sure as hell not going to fall into that trap. If I had a daughter, I’d respect what she chose to do to her body. It’s her damn body, after all, not mine.”

“I hope you’re right,” Grandma replied with a wink, “but I suspect once you have children you’ll feel very different. Most folk do. But I guess we’ll see…”

“Grandma? Why are you being so cool about all this? Shouldn’t you have the same problems as mom times two?”

She laughed out loud at this, and the laugh turned into a cough.

“Oh please,” She replied once she had herself back under control, “Your Grandfather was in the navy, I’ve seen plenty of tattoos. The color on yours is much brighter, though. It’s very pretty.”

We talked for a little longer before heading back in, to find that Mom had already returned to the dinner table. The rest of my visit was cordial, but distant, it was a while before the two of us forgave each other for that fight. And every awkward moment my body art caused was a reminder never to let that happen to me, never to lose touch with that open, accepting part of me, the part that knew that cultural mores changed and accepted their changing with a sense of hope and optimism. Never to let myself grow old.

Yet here I am, twenty-five years later, sulking in my study after having the exact same fight with my own daughter.

Fine. Fine, I’ll accept this. I may not have been able to prevent myself speaking in the heat of the moment, but I still have enough control over my actions to apologize now. I’ll march upstairs, knock on her door, look her square in the eyes and apologize, then ask if she’d like to join me for ice cream.

Dead in the eyes, I won’t look away from her eyes.

After all, if I don’t look at it, I won’t be tempted to comment on the exposed bone and musculature where she had the skin on her face removed and replaced with a transparent plastic sheath…

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