I have an unusual family; I admit it. I was touched, therefore, when last year, for Mother's Day, my sister Ellen, and her youngest son Josiah kept up the non-traditional family values. To commemorate the holiday, they both set out to Yankee Tattoo in Burlington to get mother-son coordinating tattoos.
In the interest of sharing the tale of this unusual event with this year’s Mother’s Day revelers, I spoke to both of them. Josey emailed from his apartment in San Francisco, and Ellen from her home in Essex, Vermont.
Josey is a gorgeous creature, blond-haired like his mother with hazel-eyes, six foot tall with that funky, yet totally calculated style that twenty-somethings seem to covet these days. It was Josey's idea to get the tattoos. I think many of us romanticize our mother’s youth, pulling out faded pictures of them looking young and beautiful, imagining the mysterious lives they led before we were born. Josey is no exception.
"Mom was a tattoo artist in the 70's in New York, and I have always been fascinated with that aspect of her life. I loved the idea of sharing an experience with her that, at one point, was such a big part of her everyday life." You would never know it from looking at her, but my sister Ellen, the recently retired hospital administrator, once led a very different kind of life.
Back in the 70’s she was apprenticed to Spider Webb — a famous tattoo artist and founder of the Tattoo Club of America — and actually co-owned a studio with him. At first glance there is no evidence of her inked past. "What’s funny is that people expect me to be heavily tattooed – and I’m not. Spider always discouraged me because he said I would someday be working in the “straight world” and would be sorry. He was right about the straight world, but I am not sure it would have mattered. And I've never been sorry."
This mother-son ritual was not a stretch for her – and it was Josey's second tattoo. The tattoos themselves are coordinating, but not identical. Ellen has a heart with a spray of flowers with a tribal flourish on her right hip, and Josey's upper arm boasts the same design linked with a heart that says, "Madre." They had originally planned on the more traditional (at least in this neck of the woods) "Mom," but Ellen suggested they use Spanish instead as a way of bringing our mother into the ritual and spanning three generations.
"I realized that one way to really bring my mother into the process was to change it to Madre – because she was Puerto Rican." Josey was surprised by this suggestion, "One day I was talking with my mother and she said that she had drawn up some sketches. When I got them I was surprised to see ‘madre,’ instead of the traditional ‘mom,’ but I loved it. It was a twist of hers that made it perfect. It is to honor my grandmother as well as my mother."
Although I had already guessed the answer, I asked them both who was tougher while getting the tattoo. Ellen was generous, “We both did well. I noticed that Josey got a little twitchy at the end, but it does get more unpleasant after a while.”
I was pleased to see that Josey was honest, “I love to think that I am tough, but mom was way tougher than me. Of course, my tattoo actually took about three hours, because she was talking with Bald Bill as he worked on me, about people they knew in New York, politics, and tattooing.
"By the time he was done with mine, three whole hours had passed, and he blasted through my mom's in about 45 minutes. Nevertheless, I was in pain, and my mom was chillin’.”
This year, as I walk through the aisles of the supermarket, surrounded by boxes of chocolates with “mother” written across the flowery boxes, the strong smell of pastel flowers wafting by me, and a sign that says “Place your order early for Mother’s Day!” I am struck by just how unique this non-traditional expression of the mother-son bond was. I asked Ellen and Josey how they felt their tattoos capture the spirit of Mother’s Day. Ellen’s response was straight and to the point, like she is and, in fact, our mother was.
“Well, on Mother’s Day you are supposed to remember your mother. Now Josey can’t forget me (or Grandma) ever! She would have loved the whole idea. In fact, she would have come with us!” Ironically, Josey’s answer was far more sentimental. “I love the fact that my mom is willing to do things with me that other people would never dream of. I know how lucky I am to have a mother like her, and doing something like this really honors that relationship.
“She is someone that I can be myself with, no bullshit. She calls me on things that I can't hear from other people. I see this experience as symbolic of our relationship: non-traditional in that we really share a lot of the same opinions, philosophically, politically, culturally. Aside from a short phase in middle school when I was convinced that I was destined to be a pot-slanging rapper in Compton, I have held my mother's beliefs in high regard, and now have come to share many of them.”
I guess the question on many of your lips is, "Why?" Though you are perfectly willing to schlep over to see your mother with a bouquet of spring flowers in hand to commemorate her role, I imagine many of you would draw the line at getting your body permanently marked in her or your son's, honor (stretch marks from childbirth aside).
When I asked Josey and Ellen why they did it, I got answers that were very indicative of their personalities. "That’s a good question. Maybe because he knew I would do it. How many mothers get tattooed with their sons? It is a bonding ritual of sorts, and since my mother was tattooed, we would all be linked in a certain way – and then there was Mother’s Day."
Josey explained his reasoning, "Why? I feel so grateful to have such a loving mother that I can relate to the way that I can with my mom. She taught me that a tattoo marks a moment in your life, and to be able to have a permanent reminder of this experience, and my relationship with my mother, is something that I don't ever want to forget."
In closing, I asked Josey and Ellen how they planned to commemorate this Mother’s Day after celebrating last year’s with such flourish. After all, what could top it? Ellen is thinking of continuing the tradition. “We’ll get Jed– my other son — to come along. I’ve been thinking of a tattoo of a Coqui! (a tiny Puerto Rican tree frog).” Josey had another idea. “We have set the bar pretty high with this year's experience, but the only logical next step is for her to get an ‘hijo’ [son] tattoo!”
Although we all can't be expected to show our affection for our mothers and sons in such a permanent and dramatic fashion, why not find a unique way to mark the occasion without resorting to the more stereotypical Mother's Day's gifts? Something that — as Josey so aptly put it — marks a moment in your life and represents your relationship – flowers and chocolates be damned!