We tend to learn our biases from our parents, but children can help open our eyes.
I remember his first haircut. My boy looked so small and afraid, almost swallowed up by that oversized leather chair at the Yellow Balloon Children’s Hair Salon. I’d planned to hold him in my lap, but as the first of many letting go’s go, the hairdresser suggested he be a “big boy” and sit by himself.
You sit by yourself, I mumbled to the so-called hairdresser whom I disliked immediately. Not only had he invaded my maternal space, but the angry red-eyed snake wrapped around his left calf reinforced my abhorrence for tattoos and the people who have them. Being the product of a tightly-knit conservative family, my mother often admonished me that people with tattoos are “universally dangerous” and I should stay as far away from them as possible.
I hovered near my dear Zachary, taking photos, shaking toys, making embarrassing animal noises — doing anything to keep my straggly haired eighteen-month-old happy and fearless. He did great.
That day was unforgettable; it could’ve been yesterday.
But it wasn’t yesterday….. Because yesterday was the day my now nineteen-year-old, told me via text message he was going to get a tattoo. And he wanted me to come. “Oh no you don’t!” my fingers typed before my brain even processed this new info. I would not allow my flesh and blood to go down that path.
“You’re not that kind of kid…..Get a sharpie, do it yourself, and live with that for a while.” I heard our dead Jewish ancestors clearing their dusty throats, and thundering, “Stop him!”
“Mom, it’s going to be XXIV. Roman numerals for the day I was born.”
Seriously. Had he thought this through? “Why Roman numerals? The Romans were bloody, brutal gladiators. Do you really want that karma on your arm?”
He texts back, “Mom, I like them, they look cool.”
“Cool?? This isn’t about cool. This is about permanent. What about numerology? What if they’re bad numbers?”
“Mom STOP. XXIV is a good number.”
“I simply will not support this.”
But he asked me again, this time standing directly in front of me, “Look Mom, this is how I look without a tattoo.” Then he takes one large step to his right — “And this is how I’ll look with a tattoo. I’m the same person. Don’t you want to come watch?”
He needs me. I need him to need me.
Ok, so I change my mind and come to learn that the Ink Monkey Tattoo Shop is impeccably clean, almost hospital-like. I hover around my 6’1” son as he sits in yet another oversized leather chair. I’m taking photos–minus the animal noises– and notice he looks even smaller and more nervous than he did at the Yellow Balloon.
I think of the times I held his clammy hand during shots because of his self-diagnosed needle phobia.
Where’s that phobia now?
I’m not a sadist—I’m just trying to be helpful. “Hey Zach, look at those needles! Remember how terrified you used to be of needles?”
“I’m not scared, Mom.”
Under normal circumstances, a child overcoming his fear would be cause for celebration, but today I want him to be scared. Heck, I’d welcome a full blown panic attack driving him right out the door.
He squirms as Eli the tattoo artist snaps on black gloves. I take this possible crack in his resolve to inquire, “Didn’t Justin Bieber get a roman numeral tattoo then get arrested? Or something?”
“You can go Mom.”
“Go? Gawd no, I’m not leaving at a time like this.”
Eli revs his tatt machine. The buzzing-killer-bee-needle is poised to push my boy over to the dark side and my head is spinning with my mother’s teachings. People who have tattoos are either in jail or in a stupor on Hollywood Boulevard. People who have tattoos are in gangs, or want to be. People who have tattoos wear dirty clothes, have greasy hair, a mean streak, and low morals.
People who have tattoos are not my son.
“I love it, Mom,” he says beaming, XXIV neatly tatted on his left upper arm. His still-sweet smile melts me and I give him a quick hug. There are so many things I don’t understand.
Dusk turns to darkness and I realize that even though I made Zachary pay for his own “damn tattoo,” I’d left my wallet on a bench at Ink Monkey. I call, and the recording says they’re closed and will reopen at noon. I can’t help but worry that every Ink Monkey employee is now knee-deep into his new baggie of smack thanks to the thick wad of cash in my wallet. I go back, hoping someone may be there.
The lights are on and I knock using the nose-ring of creepy gargoyle door knocker. A guy with a lit cigarette dangling between his lips and the word “pain” in fancy script inked across the side of his neck welcomes me inside.
“You look like Barbara,” says someone with forehead horn implants that look disturbingly like the nubs on head of a baby deer-devil. I’m a tad on edge and flinch, surprised to hear my name used under these circumstances. “What did you say?”
A heavy set man, both arms completely covered with skeletons in various states of undress, glances up from tatting a giant revolver on another guy’s forearm and inquires, “Aren’t you the lady that left her wallet here?”
“Yeah, it’s her,” the horned guy says as he unlocks a drawer, removes my wallet, matches me to the license photo, and hands it to me.
“Thanks. Thanks so much. You’re certainly cautious. Thanks for keeping it safe.”
Once back in my car I check my wallet to see what, if anything, is left inside. Everything is there — all my money, credit cards, bank receipts, driver’s license, social security and insurance cards. Who are these honorable (pierced, tattooed, horned) men?
I consider my experience of them. They are:
- gainfully employed,
- working past midnight
- dedicated to their craft
Aren’t these qualities more like those of the Boy Scouts rather than a mother’s worst nightmare? Might there be hope? Might XXIV not negatively affect the course of Zachary’s life? Perhaps there are worse things.
As I shush my ancestors’ tirades, I begin to accept what is—people who have tattoos are my son. And, today, that’s fine with me.
Photo: Getty Images