“I wasn’t young for very long.”
She takes me to Glorious West African Cuisine on Elmwood Avenue. We eat fried plantains and dry rice, and she accuses me of picking at my food.
“You finicky? I used to call my son finicky. Then he got older and now he’ll eat whatever you put in front of him.”
Her son lives in Boston now, which to her might as well be Timbuktu.
“Once he knew what he wanted, that was it,” she says, spooning some baked chicken onto my plate. “He was off like a shot.”
Two younger daughters live closer. Very close, in fact. One still lives at home, and the other has a place on America Street.
“It’s this big, big house,” she tells me, laughing. “I say to her, ‘How can you afford a place this big?’ She says, ‘Oh Ma, one of the girls? Their boyfriend has a lot of money. He pays for it. Pays for everything.’ I say ‘What kind of man pays for his girlfriend’s apartment but doesn’t live there with her? What kind of man is this?’ She thinks I ask too many questions. As long as she’s not getting mixed up in all that, I’ll mind my business. I tell her, ‘You go in your room and shut the door.’ She laughs at me. All she does is laugh at her mother.”
The daughter who lives at home is a student at CCRI. She’s the one who told me to talk to her mother about what’s been occupying her life lately.
“The tattoos,” she tells me, already rolling up her sleeve to show me her first. “I got this one with my son for my 57th birthday. He said, ‘Ma, come get a tattoo with me.’ He thought I wouldn’t. I said, ‘You buying it for me?’ He says, ‘I’ll buy it for you.’ So I went with him and I got my kids — their names — it’s in a circle? Isn’t it so pretty? The girl did a nice job. I’ve gone to her a few times now.”
That’s the number of tattoos she currently has. And she wants more.
“Someone said, a friend said to me, ‘You’re going to get addicted,’ and I thought they were pulling my leg, but after I got the first one, I saw two more I thought I would like, so I got them. It’s not cheap, you know! It’s very expensive. But the work is good work. I have a neighbor who used to do it, and he says the work is very good, so I’m happy with it.”
There’s nothing odd about having 12 tattoos, and there’s nothing unusual about deciding to get your first ink a bit later on in life.
It’s just a matter of how quickly it all took place.
She got the names of her children put on her right arm three years ago. Ever since then, she’s either getting tattoos or thinking of the tattoos she could be getting.
There’s a beaten-up notepad she takes with her just about everywhere, and she’ll write down inspirations whenever they come to her.
I’m allowed to look at a few of them. The handwriting is lovely with great big loops for her cursive Ls and strict adherence to where the letters meet the lines.
Each idea is short and sweet, but I ask for explanations behind a few of them.
“The way my mother wore her hair. I want it down my back. There’s nothing on me yet that reminds me of my mother, because we weren’t very close, but I want to do something for her all the same.”
The Old House
“I have a small photograph of where I grew up. The girl I go to said she could do it for me even though it’s very intricate. I can show it to you.”
Back at her house, she takes out the photo. It’s got the bright colors of the 1970s. A girl — I assume it’s her — is sitting on the steps in front of the house with her arms wrapped around her knees. I ask her if she’s the girl, and she says, “Yes.” I ask her if she wants to be in the tattoo, and she says–
“I don’t think so, no.”
It feels inappropriate to ask where she’s getting the money for the tattoos, but she offers it up on her own.
“My daughter tells me I’m spending too much on it,” she says, “I tell her it’s not like I’m charging her rent to pay for it. I have money from when I was working at the hospital. I saved my money. I’ll spend it how I want. Not like you can take it with you. I say to her, ‘You think you’re getting my money when I die?’ She knows that’s not how it’s going to be. It wasn’t much besides all that, and I finally said, ‘I’ll spend it if I want, how I want.’ My son says ‘Good for you, Ma.’ He’s the one that got me into all this so I think he likes it. He’s got a cool mom now. I was never a cool mom. Very strict. Very. I still am, but now I have my tattoos.”
She says I can write about her tattoos, but not about where they are on her — with the exception of where she keeps her children’s names. That she’s fine with, because it’s mostly visible anyway.
Other than that, she has her husband’s name, a rose, two butterflies, a cross, two quotes from the Bible, a hand holding another hand, the moon and one ring on each hand.
“I don’t know why I like the feeling,” she says, looking down at one of the tattoo rings. “That’s the same finger where I had my wedding ring. I couldn’t wear it after my husband passed. Too hard for me. I keep it upstairs in my bedroom. I’m too scared to lose it. This one I won’t lose.”
When I ask her if she’s suffered a lot of loss in her life, she’s still holding the photograph of that young girl sitting in front of a house.
“I told you I wasn’t close with my mother, but my father and I were thick as thieves. He was gone early — too early on for me. That was the worst one until my husband. That one I saw coming, but it still knocked me down hard. I ate and ate — I got so big. I slept. My daughters got me out of it. They’re good girls. My son — he runs around. Makes me laugh. He’s good for that. My girls are my two warriors. They said, ‘Ma, get up out of bed. Enough.’ They did that while they were crying over their father every night, but they didn’t want to lose me, too. Such good girls.”
And are the tattoos a way of remembering?
“My father had his father’s name and the name of a man he fought with when he served. That was how he honored his father and that man — who saved my father’s life. I never thought of honoring anybody like that, but when they sat me down and asked what I wanted, it came back to me — those names he had on him. I wanted to do that for my kids. They’re who I wanted to honor. Then my husband. My parents. I’m older now. I want to say ‘Thank you’ to people. I want to show my gratitude.”
She says the old house will be next, and then the braid for her mother.
“My mother would have beat me for getting all these tattoos,” she says. “Ever since I got the first one, I tell people she’s haunting me. Just making me lose things. Can never find my keys anymore. Never used to have that problem. I’m thinking if I get something for her, she’ll leave me be.”
A grin escapes across her face.
“If not, it’s still pretty,” she says. “Very pretty.”
She looks down at the photograph of a girl with nothing worth remembering. Then, she folds it in half, and tucks it back into a soft blue shoebox.
“Yes,” she says, thinking back on the braid that’ll run all the way down her back, “Maybe I’ll get that one next.”