Ink Fades; Memories Linger


I glanced at the biceps on my left arm to follow the pointing hand of a trainer at my health club.

"Oh, you mean my tattoo?"

"Yeah, what does it say?"

I stretched my neck and pulled my arm closer to read it for him. But as I searched for the words, I made an unhappy discovery. "It's faded," I said. How had I not noticed that before?

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," I said, "it was inked 15 years ago, for my 60th birthday."

"Wow," he said. Was he doing the math to get my current age, or stuck at wondering why a 60-year-old would've considered her first-time tattoo back then?

Our chat inspired me to cut my exercise routine and revisit the occasion of my tattoo. I stretched out on a bench and it all came back:

When that 60th birthday was nearing, friends and loved ones queried: How do you plan to celebrate? Expecting news of a gala party, European trip, or expensive jewelry, they learned instead: “I’m getting a tattoo.”  

 “Are you nuts?” my brother Ron had asked. “When I was in the army, any woman with a tattoo was considered a hooker.”

My husband, Tommy, whom I had wed a mere seven month's earlier, offered a gentler response: “It’s not my arm, but if that’s what you want, go ahead.” Even in that short wedlock, it's likely my spouse realized his wife could be unpredictable and not easily dissuaded.

Daughters’ Faith and Jill -- a musician and writer -- pronounced the plan “terrific.”

The next question was: “Why?” To me, achieving age 60 was a chance to thumb my nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics; who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.

Deciding on a design was difficult, considering it would be my companion till dust do us part.  Because my marriage was so fresh, I decided not to jinx it with Tommy's name splayed on my arm. I settled on a tattoo with a heart that would contain two banners, each bearing a daughter’s name. And it would be joyful, a tribute to my talented daughters, honoring them for our solid relationship and their own free spirits.

Finding my tattoo artist was easier. From referrals, I settled on Jon. “It must be fun, carnival-like,” I instructed, “with symbols of my daughters’ personalities.” He quickly sketched a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses emanating from all sides. Across the center were two banners: Faith, the eldest, on the upper, Jill, 18 months younger, the lower.

The second appointment produced the finished product on translucent paper: my puffy heart in psychedelic colors of crimson, yellow, turquoise, and emerald with my daughters’ names emblazoned on its front.

After two hours, the tattoo was complete. I stared into the mirror, praying for satisfaction, and saw my badge of courage: a 4-3/4 inch wide by 3-inch high, wildly colored tattoo, with my cherished daughters forever engraved on my arm. 

"Keep it covered until morning," Jon said as he protected it with Saran Wrap™.  

At home that afternoon Tommy was eager to view the results, but I pleaded, “Wait till morning,” preferring to keep my raw portrait protected in its plastic bunting.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Visions of regrets, onlookers’ gasps, and lifelong pain prohibited repose. I prayed for the hours to race by. In the morning, I ran to the bathroom, and was ecstatic to find my gorgeous tattoo intact. It was bright, fun, and, well, tough!

Today, with Tommy gone, but still brighter in my memory than my fading tattoo, I recall his response: "I love it!" he had said. "It's sexy."

Rather than refreshing the ink on my 15-year-old tattoo, as I first considered, I think I'll leave it as is. Somehow, the soft colors seem more appropriate to a widow. But, who knows how I'll feel at 80; perhaps a brand new one?

Note: This essay is part of my new memoir, "Green Nails And Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss," which is to be published September 2014. To join the book's crowd-funding campaign, please click on Elaine Soloway's Kickstarter Campaign. Thanks!