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My Retired Mother Gets a Tattoo

At a recent family gathering, my 67-year-old mother announced she was going to get a tattoo. My father was appalled. He joked that it would resemble a giant liver spot.
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At a recent family gathering, as we were clearing the dinner dishes, my 67-year-old mother calmly announced that she was going to get a tattoo.

Now, my mother is hardly the biker type. She's a wholesome Talbot's-sweater-wearing Southerner, a former flight attendant from the days when airlines had strict weight and grooming requirements. After a tense silence, one of us -- it might have been me -- asked if she had a design in mind. My husband suggested a 'do not resuscitate' tattoo he had recently seen on a retiree's chest, but Mom did not find the humor in that. She told us she wanted a large black raven on her left wrist.

My father was appalled. He joked that it would resemble a giant liver spot. My two sisters and I -- all tattoo-free -- loudly backed him. Desperately, we tried scaring her with tales of dirty needles and rampant hepatitis. I said that tattoos have been called 'permanent bell bottoms.' She wouldn't budge. She just wanted to adorn her body with a little art, she said. A raven would make her happy. Period.

So I told her to at least let me choose the artist. As I researched, I found that getting inked is not as taboo as it once was -- even among grandparents. Over a third of Americans between 18 and 25 now have a tattoo, and the number of first-timers 50 and over is growing. To meet the demand, a fledgling chain called Tattoo Nation is opening outposts in a number of suburban malls, where older customers will feel more comfortable. A couple of tattoo artists I talked to said that inscriptions of grandchildren's names were gaining in popularity among retirees, as well as the faces of deceased spouses.

But Mom wanted a raven, so a few months ago, my parents and I went to Shotsie's Tattoo in Wayne, New Jersey, where a guy wearing a dog collar called the Ink Shrink gave my mother her wish. I was extremely uncomfortable, not just because we were easily the least hip people to ever visit the place, but because I was in the advanced stages of my first pregnancy.

But my mother was serene. And so I stood by helplessly as someone I loved did something I thought was reckless and foolish. I had tried to talk her out of it, but she didn't listen for a minute, even though I was convinced that I knew best.

As I watched the raven slowly come to life on her wrist, it occurred to me that my mother had given me an indelible preview of parenthood.

Jancee Dunn is the author of the recent essay collection Why Is My Mother Getting A Tattoo? And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had To Ask.