The comfort of familiar things.

Untitled, by Joel Hilgenberg

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo.

If we know each other, in real life, then this revelation may be shocking. If we know each other very well, though, then it’s possibly not unexpected.

I have been thinking about it, a tattoo, though not terribly seriously, for longer than I’ll admit, even here. Tattoos, like second ear piercings or magenta streaks through graying hair (also under evaluation), fall decidedly into the category of “things that would have horrified my mother.” Then again, were she still alive I suspect my mother would have softened her position on many  things, sifting and sorting what’s important from the rest through an increasingly open weave. It is one of the great benefits of being old that things formerly dismissed outright, and with harsh judgment, might again seem worth reflection, if not full reconsideration. And vice versa.

My renewed interest in a bit of ink was sparked by the beautifully heart-breaking essay, “You Might Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose work was unfamiliar to me until 10 days ago. Her words have been lingering like thick smoke ever since, the image of a small “j” on her ankle, companion to her husband’s “AKR,” indelible in my mind. Why, in such a rich story, this one detail struck a chord, I can’t explain, other than to say that some vaguely-related thought was already present. It’s not so much a lurking desire to be marked as it is to have something permanent, through life’s inevitable hellos and good-byes, a tangible reminder of an otherwise abstract kind of intimacy.

You’re thinking, I know, that something less extreme might suffice. I’ll remind you of a story I’ve told often, though not recently:

Six or seven years ago I bought a necklace for myself, a simple silver ball chain that holds two small silver medallions on which my children’s names are stamped. My daughter calls this necklace the Angry Mother’s Day Necklace because she, unfortunately, has a clear memory of its arrival.

I had been asking, three years in a row, for such a necklace as a Mother’s Day gift. The first year, Bernard didn’t take me seriously and didn’t even consider the request.

The second year, he tried talking me out of it, acknowledging that he had heard my request but certain that I would not actually want what I’d asked for. By that time in our life together, he had enough perspective on my flights of fancy to believe himself correct on this particular point.

The third year, with help from a friend, I researched artisan jewelers, found one I liked, designed exactly what I wanted, and sent the link to my friend, who then sent the link to Bernard. All he had to do, she wrote in an email, was put in a credit card number, easy-peasy.

Only, he didn’t. And, in pure, unfortunate, coincidence, the children’s teachers decided to skip Mother’s Day card-making activities.

So, on Mother’s Day morning, when all these things became clear, I stormed downstairs saying, in an unattractive voice, “I’ll just buy my own fucking Mother’s Day present.” And I did. Then I spent the day on the porch drinking Champagne, painting chairs with a neighbor and childishly ignoring everyone in my house.

I put on the necklace the day it arrived, a week later, and I haven’t taken it off since, mostly for the reasons I wanted to have it in the first place, but also as a constant reminder to temper my temper.

A year or so after my terrible outburst, my daughter and I were walking the dogs around the block. When we paused to give the dogs their required time, Astrid noticed that the clasp on my necklace had worked its way around to the front of my neck and that the small, silver discs were hanging one on each side of the fastener, out of balance. As I was adjusting the chain, she asked why I had wanted it so badly, why I’d gotten so upset.

“I want you close to me, always,” I said, “even when you’re not actually with me. I don’t think Dad understood how much it mattered to me.”

After thinking for moment, she said, “Dad doesn’t always listen to you. But you don’t always listen to him, either.”

I find myself now, today, several years later, in the thick of the holding-dear-and-letting-go days, middle-age combined with having teenagers at home – teenagers who will eventually leave the nest. We will be free in new and different ways, all of us, not too long from now. With that increasing freedom comes a keener appreciation for small mementos and the odd, fleeting gestures of comfort and familiarity.

In the same way that letting go is very different from losing, holding dear is very different from clinging. These differences can be hard to see, however, in the throes of daily commotion. When clarity appears, it is an exceptional gift.

I was packing for a trip recently, digging through the hall closet to find my travel bag. “You can use my duffel,” Astrid said, walking behind me on the way to her room. I thanked her but said I’d take mine, which I was still unable to locate.

When I went to look in my own closet, in the bedroom, Bernard said, “You know that means she wants you to take her bag, right?” I had not known it, not until he said it.

I knocked on my daughter’s stickered door, told her I couldn’t find my trusty SportSac, asked if her offer still stood.

“Ohmygosh, really? I’m in bed already, and it’s a pain to get it down.” And then she got out of bed, stood on a chair to reach her top shelf, and retrieved the cute Vera Bradley bag I’d given her as a birthday present. “If you spill something on it or mess it up, or if something happens, you have to buy me a new one,” she said, though not in an unkind way.

The next morning, on a whim as we were heading out to go to the airport, I grabbed Bernard’s favorite red Marmot jacket – which he’s had for longer than I’ve known him. His response (“it isn’t really waterproof, and it’s kinda big on you…”) – not unlike my daughter’s from the night before – told all.

So there I was, sitting at the gate, waiting to board the plane, bright print bag at my feet, bright red jacket in my lap. I felt something rattle, and I discovered a string of plastic beads that my son had given Bernard years ago, still tucked into one of the small pockets of the red jacket.

Suddenly, there they all were, all theee of them, right there with me: a head resting on my shoulder, a hand reaching up to clasp mine, a press in the curve of my back. Skin to skin, warm to warm, breath to breath. And I recognized, all at once, that it wasn’t about the stupid necklace. It never had been.


Food | Week of March 13, 2017

Guinness Pie

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon

Pasta with Sage, Butter & Parmesan |Lemon-Garlic Kale Salad

Fast Tandoori Chicken | Couscous Tabbouleh

Eggs Baked in Cream | Herb Salad

16 Comments Add yours

  1. So perfectly written and so eloquently expressed. Loved this.

  2. katie says:

    1. Can’t believe I let myself read this post eye makeup and pre-hurry up get to work time. It got me.
    2. I’ve been re-contemplating my own tattoo rumblings . . . a sunflower on my toe that I almost got when I was 23. Or, alternately, a nose piercing . . . just a minute stud.
    3. I didn’t know Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote adult books, but she is one of the most clever/wise/delightful children’s authors I know. One of my absolute favorites. You should read any/all you can find.

    1. Jennifer I enjoyed your story so much!! I want to see your necklace someday pleass! You are an awesome writer and a very special friend!

  3. Dacian says:

    Such a nice post! Made me smile! Thanks πŸ˜€

  4. Quinn says:

    This is so lovely! I really loved this post. I hope that if I have a family one day I have moments like this.

  5. Lyric says:

    You will love Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. It’s perfect. So richly observed in the little details and so true. It has lines like why does the music in the car always sound so loud when you get in and turn on the engine, when it seemed perfectly fine when you turned off the engine — except written a little better than that. And her lists…
    Of course, beautiful piece by you, which bears repeating no matter how many times it is also true.

  6. This was so cute! Without reading this tonight i don’t think I would’ve realized how much a good night text could change my mom’s night! Thank you thank you

  7. Patrick says:

    Thank you for this! This was an amazing read and reminds me of how my parental family have been over the years. My kids are toddlers in the present, but I am hoping to keep this in my mind as they grow.

    Hold family (and close friends) near and dear… You’re a blessing to those around you.

  8. The-holding-dear-and-letting-go days… did you know those were the words I needed this morning? πŸ™‚ What a beautiful and touching piece of writing.

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