17 June 2010

tradition, expectations, and favorite underwear

My mother got a tattoo:  this is part 3 of that story.  You can go back to the beginning {and read all about how she sprung this news on me in the bathroom} here.

I worked through my tattoo shock during Fiddler on the Roof.

During the song “Tradition” when the people in Anatevka explain the very specific roles each member of the family and community plays, I leaned over to ask my mom, “But why did you do it?  Why get a tattoo at 53?”

“Because I was tired of being what everyone expected me to be.”

It was hard to miss the irony:  my mother announced that she wanted to surprise people for once in her life, just as a cast of Russian peasants was singing about how mamas should “know the way to make a proper home, a quiet home, a kosher home.”  In Anatevka, you were supposed to do what was expected of you.

But Fiddler on the Roof is about accepting change, especially changes in people you love.  It's a bit about how you may not always agree with their decisions, but that doesn't mean they're wrong.  And Fiddler is very much about family and community—and the continuity that love brings, even when there's change.

All this is very acceptable to me when represented in two-and-a-half hours and with a 15-minute intermission to allow you to buy the commemorative Fiddler nesting dolls.  I even like it when I get that dull ache of pre-emptive nostalgia during “Sunrise, Sunset” as I think ahead to what it'll be like when I'm older—perhaps when I'm 53—and I try to trace back how I got to where I am.

I do not like this acceptance of change idea when it's so clearly represented on my mother's thigh.  {Or anyone's thigh, really.}

But that idea my mother had brought up—of wanting to surprise people who thought they knew you—I connected with that.  That's the idea that makes my nostrils flare when someone tries to fit me into a box.  Being packed into the goody-two-shoes box also makes my eye twitch.

I didn't think that I alone owned that feeling; I just didn't know that my mother had a share in it, too.  Instead of having an eye twitch, she had unpacked herself for good from the goody-two-shoes box by getting that tattoo.

The blue horse on her thigh was an act of ripping the box apart and then stomping on it while wearing very muddy shoes.

Even the biggest changes eventually become accepted, known parts of your life.  The trick is to get through the time when you can't look at your mother without screaming, “TATTOO!  You have a tattoo!”  Keep that voice inside your head:  this is the best advice I can give.

As I learned more about my mother's tattoo—as I stopped asking questions in an accusatory tone—I got used to the idea.  She'd been thinking about it for several years.  She'd picked out the design a year before she actually got it—got inked, I think the lingo is.  She'd decided on a horse because she's always had and loved horses.

She'd wanted to get it on her lower back, but the tattoo man had guided her towards the thigh because it was less visible.

Dear Tattoo Artist in Iowa City—

Thank you for preventing my mother from getting a tramp stamp.

A daughter who would've been more horrified

It's been a year since my mother got a tattoo.  At times, the absurdity of it stops me:  my mother, who used to sew matching Easter dresses for my sister and me, all frills and lace and pastel fabric, has something in common with that guy at my gym who has cut the sleeves off every shirt so that his tiger tattoo is always visible when he's lifting weights.

Most times, though, I think of my mother's tattoo as special underwear.  Don't deny that you have a favorite pair of underwear and every time you wear them, there's an extra kick in your step.

My favorite pair has French on it, useful phrases such as “Quelle heure est-il?”  This would be useful if I needed to ask a French person the time, had forgotten the phrase, and was in a situation where it'd be normal to look at my underwear.

Wearing your favorite pair of underwear makes you feel more powerful and prepared for the day, mostly because it's something that only you know.

My mother's tattoo is her permanent favorite pair of underwear so that even when she's wearing comfy sandals and a khaki skirt, all practicality on the outside, she can walk with a kick in her step:  she has a blue horse galloping across her thigh.

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