Over Manhattans in Manhattan last spring, my mother said to me, “I’m thinking of getting a tattoo.”
I imagine I blinked a bit, unsure if this proclamation was an intentional statement or simply one of my mother’s rambling, random thoughts that on occasion pop out of her mouth with or without a cocktail (though truthfully we were on our second round, in celebration of her 79th birthday, tickets to see Hamilton, and my mom’s first visit to New York City since she was a teenager).
I played along with her that evening, saying I’d get a tattoo with her, assuming the idea would slip to the back of her mind in the upcoming weeks. But over the next few months the topic kept creeping into our conversations, and so, on Black Friday, I took my mom to get her first tattoo while visiting her in New Mexico for Thanksgiving.
When I was a girl, I didn’t see my mother as a free spirit. She was just, Mom. My parents had a good marriage, a loving marriage, and we did our share of exploring as a family, but I never thought of her as eccentric. We were a fairly typical middle-class family: Mom cooked, and Dad did the dishes; they bowled in their church bowling league; they played bridge with the same group of friends they met in their singles’ group in the 60s. Often she’d drive me crazy, though that isn’t an especially unique thing about my mother; mothers are supposed to drive their daughters crazy.
My dad died almost thirteen years ago, and it’s been in the years following his death that I’ve seen this new mom emerge — a more confident, quirky, independent, and outspoken version of the mom I already knew. I think that woman was always in there, but in the last few years she’s blossomed. My dad’s death didn’t stop her life; instead, it’s led to her rebirth.
When we got back to the retirement community where my mom lives (“The Home,” as I like to call it) my mom and I showed off our new ink to her friends. My jaw dropped as they started talking about getting nipple piercings, and during dinner that evening in the dining hall, I was stunned to learn how many of her friends have tattoos of their own. Who knew that there’s a gaggle of 80-something ladies getting inked in Albuquerque?
Perhaps it’s the altitude.
The thing about my mom, though, is that I sense she doesn’t see herself in the way I do. I see her as a badass, an inspiration. She is a flâneuse. But she still sometimes sees herself as an uncertain wallflower. When I mention this to friends of mine who have met her, they all say, “No way. Your mom is amazing. She’s so smart and funny and adventurous.” They tell me that my mom is way more active and free spirited than their moms are, moms who are often ten or more years younger than my mom. She defies stereotypes about being an older woman. “Old” women are supposed to sit in rocking chairs, knitting sweaters for their grandchildren. They are not supposed to have happy hour every night, get tattoos, go to political demonstrations, or collect stamps in their passports.
I feel lucky that I have a mom who, via her words and her actions, encourages me to go beyond the world’s expectations. She doesn’t care that I’ve never been married, that I don’t have children, that I don’t own a house in the suburbs. “You never do what you’re supposed to do,” she once said to me. “You do what you want to do.” I’ve never forgotten these words. She trusts my judgment. She trusts that I am forging my own trail. She doesn’t wince when I tell her that I’m stowing my stuff in friends’ garages so that I can go travel for a year; instead, she asks when and where she can join me.
In the tattoo shop, I honestly didn’t think she’d go through with it. She was overwhelmed by the process; she almost ran out of the shop in tears. I found myself wanting to hide under the table. I found myself wishing I’d packed my flask. “Whose brilliant idea was this?” I said to my friend, Debi, who had come along for moral support but mostly spent her time cackling at me.
In the end, my mom did it. And like every inked person I’ve ever known, the first words out of her mouth were, “What should I get next time?”