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Move over, macho man! Momma’s getting ink

How old is too old when it comes to getting a tattoo? Author Jancee Dunn opines on this and other topics in her latest book, "Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?" Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

How old is too old when it comes to getting a tattoo? Author Jancee Dunn opines on this and other topics in her latest book, "Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?"

Chapter 17: I'm Gettin' A Tattoo
Last Thanksgiving, right about the time that our family had finished scraping up the last of our triple fleet of pies (pecan, chocolate, and pumpkin) my mother pushed away from the table, dabbed her lips with a napkin and calmly made an announcement.

“I’m gettin’ a tattoo,” she said.

All of us froze. Most even stopped chewing, a testament to the gravity of the situation.

She looked around, defiant. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I’m doing it, and that’s that.”

Our dining table, strewn with artificial pumpkins and votive candles in harvest colors, suddenly transformed into a hushed, packed courtroom. Nobody spoke.

I cleared my throat. “Mom,” I said. “Mom. You’re not a kid. You’re __. [A note here. I have been requested not to reveal my mother’s age, as she looks considerably more youthful than her calendar age and would prefer to ‘let people wonder.’]

Dinah’s fork hovered motionless over the last scrap of her chocolate pie. “What do you plan to get, exactly?” she asked in a faint voice. “Have you thought about it?”

My mother drew herself up, relishing the moment. “I’ve decided to get a raven.”

“Why?” Dinah still hadn’t resumed eating. I had already finished my chocolate pie and wondered if I could finish hers, provided that she cut away the parts her fork had touched.

My mother shrugged. “I don’t know why. I’ve always liked ravens. Maybe that’s my totem or something, I don’t know. They just appeal to me.”

“I think I need to be fanned,” I heard Heather mutter to her husband, Rob. Then she asked my mother where she planned to have this tattoo inscribed.

“On my wrist,” she replied, waving her left hand over what I felt was a very large area of her right wrist.

Dinah tried again. “Is this some sort mid-life thing?”

My mother laughed. “I’ve passed mid-life. Am I having a later in life crisis? No. I just think it’s going to make me happy.”

Then I stepped in. “You’ll get tired of looking at it, believe me. Don’t you get sick of your clothes, your jewelry? You go out and buy new ones and give the old ones to Goodwill. Well, you can’t do that with tattoos. Simon Doonan once called them ‘permanent bell-bottoms.’ ”

At the same moment, we all arrived the collective realization that my father had not yet said a word. Every head snapped to where he sat at the long table opposite Mom. His resigned expression made it clear that they had already chewed the issue over.

Heather frowned. “Dad? You have nothing to say?”

He sighed and put down his fork. “Well,” he began finally. “I wish she wouldn’t do it, because it’s not easy to reverse those things. Your mother is a beautiful woman. She doesn’t need to make a statement. Why be a human billboard?”

My dad shook his head. “But you know your mother. The more you protest, the more determined she is to do it. When I object heavily to something, she’ll get her back up. I gave her my opinion, and either she takes it or she doesn’t. I respect her decision if that’s what she wants to do, but I don’t agree with it. Styles come and go. What’s it going to look like when she’s all wrinkled up? You’re not going to be able to tell what the hell it is. I don’t know, a butterfly on the wrist?”

“Didn’t you hear her?” said Heather. “She wants a raven.”

My dad raised his eyebrows. “ Hm. Even worse. A black raven?  That’s kind of dark, isn’t it? It will just look like a liver spot gone wild.”

My mom laughed merrily. “It’s my body,” she said. “I do not understand why everyone is getting so upset.”

I raised my eyebrows and informed her that had I floated the idea of a tattoo for myself ten years ago, she would not have approved.

She nodded. “Correct. I think ten years ago you would have been too young to decide something that was permanent. At my age, I’m certainly more aware that this is something I want for the rest of my life.” My mother’s little announcement would have been considerably less jarring if I had the sort of parents some of my friends had, ones who smoked pot with their kids or strolled around the house nude or passed on their treasured collection Hendrix records. But my folks had always been unapologetically square.

I tried for levity. “If you’re going to be radical, why not go all the way? Get a tattoo that fools the eye. How about a port wine stain? Or give yourself a chin cleft.”

“Why not lengthen your butt crack halfway up your back?” said Heather. “That would freak out everyone in your garden club.”

Tom cleared his throat. “Some senior citizens have gotten tattoos that say ‘Do not resuscitate,’ ” he pointed out. “Just an option.” 

The laughter faded and we stared at our plates while my mother dug with gusto into the remainder of her pie. I could tell she was feeling pretty satisfied with herself. Heather’s husband Rob, who has age-appropriate tribal tattoos of his own, jumped up to bring out more decaf coffee and to remove himself from the awkwardness. We all watched him intently as he poured it into our mugs. “Well,” I said at length. “I suppose if you’re going to go through with it, will you at least allow me to choose the place you go to? I have friends who have gotten tattoos and I don’t want you going to some fly-by-night joint.”

“Sure,” said my mom, nodding. “Sure.”

“In fact,” I went on, “A crony of mine just wrote an article on the best tattoo artists on New York City. They’re the ones who work on various celebrities. They don’t come cheap, but then again, I suppose this is a pretty important decision.”

Dinah and Heather looked at me, their eyes widening with incredulity and then narrowing. I knew I’d hear about it later.

The moment arrived after dinner, as I settled into my parents’ guestroom wearing a pair of my mother’s pale yellow Liz Claiborne sweats. Tom was downstairs playing video soccer with Rob and I was gearing up to flip through a pile of my mother’s Southern Living magazines. I could not get enough of their demented recipes, my very favorite being a Turtle Trifle, which involves cutting a pecan pie into cubes, and layering it in a trifle dish with mascarpone cheese, fudge sauce, caramel sauce, and more pecans. That’s it. (I laugh, but would I eat it? Oh yes. Yes, I would.)

And it seemed to be an editorial requirement that each issue contain some variation of a recipe for cornbread – cornbread crepes, open-faced shrimp cornbread sandwiches. Ah. Here we go: cornbread croutons. Hm, I thought absently. I might eat that. A little heavy, sure, but…

A loud knock interrupted my thoughts and Dinah and Heather burst in without an invitation. They both took a seat on the bed.

I looked at them. “Did you notice that we’re all wearing Liz Claiborne sweats? What, did Mom just pass them out to everyone? They have a weird way of making us look shorter, don’t you think?”

They wouldn’t be distracted. Heather got right into it. “You know what, Jancee? I think you’re an enabler.”

“You are,” Dinah put in. “You made the whole process seem fun, like, ‘let’s go to New York City and have a crazy day in the East Village, getting a tattoo.’ ”

“Whoa,” I said. “Why are you people turning on me? I think this is a horrible idea, too.”

“You know why?” said Dinah. “If we hadn’t started screaming, this might have gone away. If you hadn’t turned it into this grand adventure where you take her to New York, then she wouldn’t do it. It’s all about attention. I know Claire’s only five, but I’ve already thought about this: when she comes to tell me she’s going to pierce her nose, I’m not even going to look up from my book.”

Heather smirked. “I hate to tell you, Dinah, but for if she’s going to pierce her nose, all she needs is a bathroom, rubbing alcohol and an earring.”

Dinah looked at me. “And of course you’re excited about this announcement because you’re going to write about it. I mean, come on. We’re not dumb.”

I acknowledged that for a writer always on the hunt for material, this was a little gift sent straight from heaven on a fluffy pink cloud.

Dinah shook her head. “You know what this is? It’s clichéd rebellion,” she said. “I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think this way about Mom. It’s rare that I don’t think the things she does are pretty great. Usually she’s so sure of herself and I don’t know, this one I don’t understand.”

Heather flopped back grumpily onto my pillows. “The tattoo will clash with her radish pin. I’m just not amused. It’s silly. If she gets a tattoo, I don’t even want to look at it. This doesn’t deserve any more talk.” She folded her arms. “Case closed.”

Yet we continued to talk. Traditionally after holiday gatherings, one of our bedrooms became a post-dinner salon where the night’s events were dissected. Before my mother made her announcement, the scandale du nuit was shaping up to be my father’s weird show of temper at dinner when my mother mentioned that she wanted to update the family photos in the dining room. He preferred for them to stay forever frozen in the Carter era, when my mother sported a frizzy perm a la Barbra Streisand’s in the remake of A Star Is Born (“the best your mother ever looked,” my father would claim to stunned silence). When my father banged his hand on the table and bellowed that the photos weren’t changing, we sisters primed for a juvenile late-night ‘what the hell is up with Dad and his freaky outburst’ discussion. At least an hour could have been wrung from it, from speculation on the general state of our parents’ marriage to crafting a plan to tell Mom to inform Dad not to flip out at the dinner table.

But our mother’s nutty plan had bumped every other issue off of the agenda. “Why does this make me so uncomfortable?” I asked my sisters. “It must be her age.”

Dinah shook her head. “It’s not that I think older women shouldn’t get tattoos, I just don’t think it fits Mom. It’s the same reason I don’t want one for myself. It’s a personality issue.”

“I agree,” I said. “She’s not the sort of mom that Cher played in Mask, when she rode around on the back of a motorcycle. She’s a different type.”

“Eventually, her skin will be sagging,” said Heather. “And so will the crow.”

“It’s a raven,” I said.

“Whatever. I just don’t want to see her lying in a coffin with a crow tattoo on her wrist.”

“It’s a raven.”

“Whatever. Mom is a confident, beautiful …

“-Smart person …” put in Dinah.

“And this is like her wearing …”

“Hot pants,” finished Dinah.

We sat quietly. “Here’s an idea,” I said. “What if we had her get it in a place that’s more discreet than her wrist?”

“She’s not going to get it,” Heather declared. “She isn’t. What’s the fun of getting it if your daughters won’t go with you? Because guess what, I’m not going with her. I’m not.”

“What if we encouraged her to do it on her ankle, for instance?” I said.

“No!” said Heather, her mouth a firm line. “It’s still there. She’s walking around in the backyard picking hydrangeas to put in a vase, and she’s got this dark splotch on her leg.”

Dinah nodded. “If it was something for her that was private, that’s a whole different thing. Tell her that we’d be much happier if she got it in a place where we couldn’t see it.”

“Ever,” said Heather.

But when I approached my mother in the kitchen the next morning and floated the idea of an ankle tattoo, the woman wouldn’t budge. “I want to be able to see it, like a wristwatch,” she said, sticking a leftover Pillsbury crescent roll into the toaster oven and taking a container of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray out of the fridge. I told her she would contract hepatitis. She sprayed a crescent roll without acknowledging me.

Defeated, I went back to my apartment and plunged like a private detective into the seamy world of tattoo research. I learned that over a third of Americans between 18 and 25 now had a tattoo. Perhaps getting inked wasn’t so seamy, after all: a store called Tattoo Nation opened in 2006 at the Woodbridge Center Mall in New Jersey (the first of what the owners planned to be an eventual 400 stores nationwide).

I reckoned that if my mother was going to go through with this loony decision, she might as well get the best artist available. I consulted my friend’s article on “The City’s Top Inkers.” The horror and goth specialist beloved by bands like Slayer and Pantera might not be quite right, but I did find one that had given Rosie O’Donnell a tat. That would excite my mother, a Rosie fan, for sure.

Unfortunately the waiting list for him was seven months. Another famous tattoo artist told me he was booked up for the entire year. So I trolled through tattoo magazines and websites in search of artists that were not quite as well known, but still skilled. I waded through hundreds of portfolios and beheld every design imaginable covering a parade of flabby forearms, hairy backs, and bikini lines that no bikini had ever graced. I spent whole afternoons getting lost in the many ways one can decorate one’s body: crying Rottweilers, a crying mime’s mask, and a preponderance of tattoos on people’s stomachs that feature the rear ends of animals, tail up, cleverly using the person’s navel as the butt opening. Every possible celebrity has been permanently committed to someone’s skin: Christopher Walken, an elderly Bob Barker, Patrick Swayze as a centaur in a sleeveless Chippendale’s tuxedo with a double helix rainbow behind him. Maddox Jolie-Pitt, for God’s sake.

It was hard to accept that my mother was aiming to join this particular club. When I told an artist friend of mine named Jason that she was going under the needle, he immediately said, “Wow — that’s so awesome. You should support her.”

“Yes, but would it be as awesome if your own mother did it?”

He thought for a moment. “You know, I guess not.” That’s the thing: it was awesome if someone else’s mother did it.

My investigation of New York City tattoo parlors continued apace. I had come to accept that the tattoo artist would have a name like Snake or Double Z or Pit Bull or Whitey and often moonlighted in a band (one artist’s band was called A Day of Pigs). But I didn’t want the actual place to be so freakily alternative that my mother would be unnerved, so that knocked out a lot of places on Avenue C and the more hipster-clogged regions of Williamsburg. Something a bit more mainstream was called for. 

Yet I could not find any senior lady-friendly establishments. You would think a tattoo parlor for the Eileen Fisher demographic would have cropped up by now, with cheery daffodil walls and free pots of decaf coffee and daycare for the grandkids while tattoos are applied.

Perhaps a New Jersey-based establishment would make her feel slightly more at home. Again I went to the internet and spent a weekend hunched over my computer, narrowing down a list of candidates, before finally deciding on Shotsie’s Tattoo of Wayne, New Jersey. My father had probably passed the place many times on his way to the J.C. Penney store that he managed in the same town. The website was reassuringly welcoming. (“Why not stop in and say hi? I’m sure you will feel very comfortable here and we can discuss all your tattooing needs and concerns.”) Hi, I pictured myself telling the owner. I’m concerned that my mother is halfway around the bend. Mind if I pull up a chair?

I saw that the place opened at 1 p.m. on weekdays. Maybe if we went on, say, a Tuesday, right at opening time, no one else would be there. I reckoned that most tattoo seekers would venture in at night. If I were being honest, my anxiety about my mother’s comfort was more about my own. I was privately relieved that we weren’t going to Avenue C. I was desperate to hustle her quietly into the back door, like a celebrity getting a secret brow lift at the plastic surgeon.

I was particularly drawn to the designs of a tattoo artist called “The Ink Shrink.” So I dialed Shotsie’s to ask him a few questions, quickly running over to my stereo first to turn off the classical music station that was playing in the background.

“Hi, is the Ink Shrink in, by chance?”

“Who’s that?” said a voice. “We don’t have anyone by that name.”

I began to sweat lightly. “Well, it says on your website that you do, and…”

“Hold on.” I heard him holler to someone in the background. “Chris? Do you call yourself the Ink Shrink?” Back to me. “Okay, yeah, he’s here.”

“Maybe he should just call himself Chris on the website, don’t you think? It might clear up some confusion.”

“What do you want to talk to him about?”

“My mother wants a tattoo,” I said miserably. “Can I just ask him a few quick questions?”

Chris got on the phone and I explained the situation, still sweating. “Do you work on old people?” I asked.

“How old?”

I told him.

“Is she healthy?”


“Shouldn’t be a problem, then,” said Chris. He seemed like an amiable guy. I asked him the protocol and he told me that she should come in first for a consultation so he would know how long to book the job.

“Listen,” I said. “She wants to get a tattoo of a raven on her wrist. I was wondering if you could maybe steer her in the direction of her ankle during this consultation.”

He thought for a moment. “Well, no, I don’t think so. The wrist is a popular spot now. If it’s done right, which is what I do, it will look beautiful.”

“The thing is, I keep trying to tell her that she should get it on her ankle. Then she can cover it up if she wants.”

“Well, at this point, she doesn’t really have to listen to you, does she?”

“I guess not.”

He laughed. “She sounds like a cool lady. Tell her to come in.”

In the meantime I received this e-mail from a friend:

That guy Shotsie was like, a tattoo legend in NJ (you probably know this). I remember all the NY hardcore bands apparently went to Shotsie back in the day (because I think tattooing was illegal in NYC for many years but was legal in NJ). So your mom is in the great company of NJ hardcore and death metal bands from that time. You should ask the people there about it.

Well. That was some good news.

And so my mother, after responsibly vetting Shotsie’s with the Better Business Bureau for any violations (none found) made a consultation appointment with The Ink Shrink for the following Saturday.

“I suppose I’d be open to another area rather than the wrist,” she mused beforehand. “I want to talk to this Ink Shrink to find out the best place to put it. I don’t want the tattoo to droop.” Guess what, lady, I thought. It’s going to droop no matter where you put it. Where was this magical, perpetually firm spot on the wrist? Maybe she was thinking beyond, to her palms. Or another non-drooping area altogether, like the roof of her mouth, or perhaps the top of her skull.

“You know that you can still back out, right?” I told her, adding that my pious Russian cleaning lady, Luba, was horrified when I told her the news. When Luba next visited to clean my apartment, she brought along her well-thumbed copy of the Bible and said that she had something to show me. “Look,” she said, leafing through it until she arrived at Leviticus 20:28. She had me read the verse aloud: You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.

“Tell Mama, God says not to do it.”

I repeated this dictum from the world’s highest authority to my mother, but she just laughed.

That Saturday afternoon, post-consultation, I received the inevitable joint phone call from the folks to report back. They called from the car as they pulled onto Route 23.

“Everyone that worked there had studs in every orifice and tattoos on every piece of skin,” said my father. “It looked like Fright Night in the Village. Then there was us. Hell, we were the only two shocking people there. We felt like two narcs.”

“You don’t say.”

“It wasn’t intimidating,” said my mother. “We were just out of our element.” My stomach contracted as I pictured my mom in her spring-green jacket from Talbots and my dad with his friendly, open smile. Should that not have been a sign that she was doing the wrong thing? Why were they there?

“The receptionist was even whiter than you,” my mother continued. As a white girl with an aversion to sun and Scottish roots, my skin was the bluish color of irradiated skim milk. “I mean her face was totally pale, no color whatsoever, and she had dyed black hair.” I wasn’t listening because I was still stuck on ‘receptionist.’ Did tattoo parlors have receptionists?

“I don’t think it was dyed,” said my father.

“Yes it was.” While they argued about her precise hair color, I returned to the shoe website I had been perusing before they called. Finally they moved on to Chris, aka the Ink Shrink, who was heavily tattooed but “extremely pleasant,” said my mother. “He said ‘awesome’ a lot.”

My mother showed him some of her favorite designs that he had instructed her to download. Then he told her he’d make up a stencil, and vetoed her plan of swilling wine during the procedure, as alcohol thins your blood. My mother asked him if the process would hurt.

I returned wearily to the shoe website because I knew exactly what my father was going to say next. And indeed:

“I told Chris, ‘she’s been through childbirth, for God’s sake,’” said my dad.

I grew more dyspeptic as I pictured my parents making bright, chirpy conversation with hip, nocturnal Chris. I went to the bathroom and rummaged in the cabinet for the antacids.

“All in all, I think we provided a lot of conversation for the employees after we left,” said my father ruefully.

“Well, Dad? How do you feel? Better? Worse? Reassured?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think this is so unnecessary that I can’t stand it. But I’m through talking to her about the whole thing.” He was genuinely aggrieved that she was going through with it. I understood.

And so a month later, on a drizzly gray day in early December, I headed back to New Jersey to watch my mother get inked. I had begged Heather to go along, but that morning she had phoned me and said that she couldn’t go.

“I contracted some sort of eye infection yesterday,” she said miserably. “I went to the doctor and he had no idea what it was. In fact, he was so amazed by it that he took pictures of me to show to other doctors. I was a big hit.”

“That’s reassuring. Did he ask you if you had been swimming in any South American rivers?”

She managed a weak laugh. “So now my eye is oozing. I’m also wearing an eye patch.”

“That’s even better,” I said. “You’ll give our little group a much-needed edge. It will offset Mom’s Talbots sweater and my pregnancy waddling. I’m wearing an open puffer coat because I can’t close it over my belly. You’ll make us look hip. In fact, stop by Bird World on the way and get a parrot to put on your shoulder. It’ll boost the freak factor.”

“I can’t. I’m so sorry. I’m really in pain.” I didn’t have the heart to push her.

Dinah was working, so I headed off by myself. My parents had decided to make a festive day of it, so we met first at Hunan Taste, our very favorite Chinese restaurant. Hunan Taste was shaped like a huge gold and red pagoda and had a koi pond both outside and inside its entrance. I loved its mixture of glitz and grandeur. The waiters wore tuxes, and the restaurant was divided into two rooms separated by enormous salt-water fish tanks, so that as you ate your pork dumplings with spicy peanut sauce, you could watch the fish. Even the top of the bar was a plexiglass fish tank, so that goldfish swam placidly underneath your drink.

As my mother dug into her dumplings, she told us about a dream she had had the night before, in which she was drawing various tattoo designs on her wrist. “And I remember trying out the idea of two eyes and thinking, ‘huh, that’s interesting.’ ” She grinned at us. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to have two eyes on your wrist?”

My father opened his mouth and then closed it, while I tried to keep my faced composed. “It would be interesting,” I said mildly. “Here’s another idea: how about one eye on each wrist?” I sighed. “Wouldn’t you feel guilty every time you sprayed perfume on your wrist, right into those open eyes? Mom, could you please have mercy on us? We just got used to the raven.” I leaned in. “I still haven’t figured out why, exactly, you’re doing this. You said you were too old to rebel. So I’m thinking you’re doing this for attention.”

She signaled the waiter for more rice. “No, I am not,” she said. “I don’t care if anyone else sees it. I don’t.”

My father found his voice. “Then why are you putting it on your wrist?”

“So I can see it! Why can’t you both believe that there’s no other reason than simply that I want it?”

I looked at her. “Because there’s always a reason.”

She rolled her eyes. “Why must there be some dark, hidden psychological explanation for every behavior? Jesus Christ! Your generation is so analytical. Honestly, y’all have had way too much therapy. I want to get it because it’s art. It’s art on my body. It’s like creating your own painting. That’s it.”

Dad checked his watch and did some silent calculations. “Twenty minutes. Let’s get the check. We don’t want to be late.”

Shotsie’s was a small, square building off of Route 23. As we walked through the door, “Sure Shot” from the Beastie Boys was blaring from the speakers. “I interviewed them,” I told my father. “They were a little difficult.” My father nodded politely.

The tattooed young guy at reception told us that Chris would be right out, so the three of us sat on the couch and flipped through a pile of tattoo books for some last-minute inspiration. A heart with “Ugly & Proud” written across it, perhaps? Or — here’s one — an expanse of flesh slit open with a bloody gash and stuffed with eyeballs.

Then out came Chris, who greeted us with a big smile and a wink for me. He led us to his work room, a dark lair with a black glossy floor, steel walls, and what appeared to be a brain in a jar of formaldehyde. His arms were covered in tattoos. He had spiked hair, a spiked belt, and a spiked black backpack tossed near his chair. 

He and my mother plotted out the design, a raven with black lines and gray and white shading. My father lingered uncertainly in the doorway while I took a seat on Chris’s leather couch and discreetly tucked away the magazine that poked out of my purse, the ‘Martha Stewart Living Christmas’ cookie issue, with a page marked for the peanut-toffee chip bars I planned to make.

I willed myself not to tell Chris that I used to work at Rolling Stone. Please, please don’t try to establish your street cred, warned an inner voice. First of all, Rolling Stone isn’t exactly hip anymore, and even if it was, you stopped working there years ago.

“I used to work at Rolling Stone magazine,” I said. “I guess a lot of hardcore bands have come here, huh?”

He nodded as he placed a design prototype on my mother’s wrist. The raven was placed off-center, as if it were going to fly away.

“I like the idea of it taking off,” said my mother.

I asked Chris, a former piercer who had graduated to tattoos, how many tats he had and he said he had no idea. “After a while it just turns into one big one,” he said with a shrug. Then I wanted to know if he turned anyone down and he nodded. “If I sense a certain kind of apprehension,” he said. “If there are questions about removal right away. Or if the design they want is crap, or a bad idea. You know, you can’t get ‘The Last Supper’ as a toe ring.”

My father nodded solemnly.

Then Chris asked my mother if she was ready. She looked so small as she sat in the treatment chair. She said she was ready as she’d ever be. Chris pulled on a pair of purple rubber gloves. I looked over at my father and knew that his queasy, fretful expression matched my own. “Okey-dokey,” said Chris.

Then there was quiet except for buzzing of the needle.

My mother stayed admirably calm. “Well, it’s not pleasant, but I don’t feel like screaming,” she said after a moment.

Dad gave me a tight smile. “Don’t take it personally, but we fought this tooth and nail,” he told Chris. “She’s not the normal demographic.”

Chris shrugged. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “It’s all different now.”

Then, with the knowledge that there was no turning back, my father relaxed a little and began to pepper Chris with Retiree Dad questions: So are you a subcontractor here or a salaried employee? Do you enter tattoo competitions? Have you ever been to Hunan Taste? Excellent Chinese food; very high quality. Then, emboldened by Chris’s chatty answers, my father drew from his lengthy street experience of watching The Wire and Oz and asked if he had ever seen tattoos made by prisoners.

“Sure. The guys are very innovative. I’ve never seen a quality tattoo but I’ve seen real artistry, given their limited equipment. The best was one that was made with nothing but a guitar string and melted checkers.”

“You know, you should go to my daughter’s website,” said my father, now fully comfortable. “Lots of really cute stuff, and boy, is it funny. She has —”

“Dad.”  I silenced him with a warning look. 

After an hour, the tattoo was almost done. “I still don’t really have a reason why I chose a raven,” my mother said to Chris.

“Mm,” he said, applying the final bits of white to the wings. “Well, they collect meaning. You may say, ‘I just like it,’ but I’ll bet in five years you’ll have more insight.” He wiped her wrist. “There,” he said.

He did a good job. The raven, about two and a half inches long, looked light and delicate, almost feminine. I supposed that like everything else, I would get used to it. My mother turned her wrist back and forth, admiring the design. “I love it,” she said. “I absolutely love it.” And that was that. My mother didn’t like a lot of fanfare. Then she announced that she had to use the ladies’ room.

“Your mom is awesome,” Chris said to me as she left the room. I told him he was pretty awesome himself. I could have kissed him for the way he was so kind and solicitous to my folks.

After I paid the tab, the day’s least hip moment occurred — certainly no mean feat — when my father pulled out his camera. “How about a picture?” he said jovially. He led Chris outside to the front of the store and stuck him between my mom and me.

“Okay, gang!” my dad said cheerily, as if we were at Hershey Park. “Big smile!”

And then, just to sand off any remaining edge that I may have once possessed, we all headed over to the nearby J.C. Penney store. My father had once been manager before he retired, and he wanted to see how the Christmas merchandise was moving. He gave me a playful shove. “And maybe you can check out the maternity fashions! Right, kid?”

As my mother happily waved goodbye to everyone at Shotsie’s, it became obvious that it had been I who was incredibly uncomfortable, not my mother. She never tried to be anything other than exactly who she was. I was the aging hipster who was queasy about my expandable maternity pants and sensible flat shoes and preference for classical music. It was a poignant trip for me, not her, because back in the day, I had probably interviewed a good number of the metal and punk bands who had gotten inked at Shotsie’s. As I said my own goodbyes to the gaggle of twenty-something Shotsie’s employees, it seemed that I was surrounded by the fish-belly-pale, sylphlike, black-clad ghosts of my younger self. Just as I bid adieu to my own youth, my mother took hers up. Go figure.

I heaved my pumpkin-shaped body into the back seat of my parents’ car and stared out the window as we drove toward J.C. Penney. I let my thoughts drift. Today, I stood by helplessly as someone I loved did something that I though was reckless and foolish, and when I tried to talk her out of it, she didn’t listen to me for one second, even though I was certain that I knew best. My mother had given me a handy preview of parenthood.

The next morning, safely back in my Brooklyn apartment, I heard the phone ring in my bedroom while I was in the shower. It was my mother:

Hi, Jancee. Thank you so much for helping me get that tattoo yesterday. I was lookin’ at it this morning, and I have to say, it makes me so happy. Listen, I really think you should get one, too. Just a little one, like maybe — “

I put my head in my hands. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” I shouted to the machine, as my two cats pattered into the bedroom and stared at me, concerned.

She was still talking. “— another thing I’ve been thinking about is that I really feel like you should consider having two children.”

“The first one isn’t even out of the oven yet,” I hollered. “Give it a rest, lady.”

“— just that you kids have brought me so much joy, and I want you to have the same thing, and… (strangled voice) Oh, hell, now I’m getting choked up. But really, think it over. Okay, I’m gonna go now. Talk to you soon.”

I sat down on my bed and sighed heavily.

“Please tell me I’m not as crazy as she is,” I said to the cats.

Excerpted from "Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?" by Jancee Dunn. Copyright © 2009 by Jancee Dunn. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group