Think of this as an unfinished mosaic:
When I was little, before my sister was born, I spent weeks each summer at the beach with my mother, building castles, looking for sand dollars, and chasing tiny crabs in the dark as they darted in and out of holes, trying to escape the beams of our flashlights. My father came back and forth as work allowed. Mostly, though, it was just mother and daughter, along with other mothers and children, playing in the sun, napping in the afternoons.
I have my father’s olive skin, and in this idyllic summer beach setting my olive skin quickly turned golden and then caramel and then a deep, rich brown. Within days I looked nothing like my alabaster-skinned mother, who tried like hell to get a Southern girl’s summer tan but was genetically programmed otherwise.
And, glimpsing myself in the mirror in our tiny beach cottage, I had cried, according to family folklore, because my tiny body no longer looked like a tiny replica of my mother’s body.
I was a mama’s girl, through and through. I wanted to look like her, be like her, dress like her. That was the story.
On our long drive to college, at the start of my freshman year, this was one of the tales my mother repeated. This story, and the one about my not wanting to leave her side even for a free cookie at the grocery store. Those two stories, and the one about my wearing her clothes to school one day when I was in fifth grade and we were, briefly, the same size. Those three stories and a few others like them were her way of sealing our bond when her baby bird flew the coop.
I asked: Do you want to be in the Northeast, the Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest?
My daughter answered: I don’t know! I just want to be out of the South.
I understood this desire, remembered feeling it when I was exactly her age. I still feel it.
So we planned a trip, a ridiculous trip, just the two of us. We would fly west, spend four days, then fly east and spend four days, not spending the night in the same city twice. We would fly and drive, and drive, and drive, and fly, and drive, and drive and drive.
And we did.
We drove, my mother and I, from Memphis to Princeton through Kingsport, where we spent the night with my aunt and uncle, my mother’s brother and dearest friend. We took turns driving because we were in her car, not a rental, and because it was a long trip. We took turns driving, and we stayed with my uncle, and we told stories along the way, and to this day I still remember all the things that seemed utterly unremarkable at the time: Waking up in that house in Kingsport, the smell of coffee, my late aunt Deidre in her flannel robe and glasses, the way my mother leaned on her brother, the engineer who, like his sister, had flown the coop and gone to college, leaving the South and its farm provincialism behind, only to return home eventually, and not entirely reluctantly.
Years later, the story of that trip, too, would be part of the family lore, only told in duet and sometimes with conflicting details, because I was the practical one who remembered things and my mother was the dreamy one who remembered things the way she wanted them to have been.
By that time, in my 20s, I had moved both away from the Mississippi Delta and out from the gravity of my mother’s shadow into my own orbit. My body — tall, broad, and tan — looked nothing like her tiny, porcelain shape. I was strong, sturdy and smooth; she was delicate and breakable.
I was strong, sturdy, smooth, and stubbornly determined, wolfishly independent. In adulthood, I did not want to look like, or be like, my mother. I wanted to be myself.
My grandmother once said, of my daughter, who was a toddler at the time: She looks like a little porcelain doll, just like your mother.
And it was true, from the beginning. My daughter was born with my mother’s fine alabaster skin that wraps around a frame she inherited from her tall, long-limbed Dutch father.
Porcelain skin, long limbs, and an innate urge to hold close and take flight at the same time. Those are the things my daughter has had since birth.
My mother had an unusual birthmark, a streak of hair that was brunette in her youth, when she was pale blonde, and silver in her adulthood, when she was a darker ash blonde. When chemotherapy robbed her head of any hair, we joked about what might happen next with that wild, iconic streak.
Silver birthmark; silver hair. That was the result. No discernible mark to indicate who she had been.
It has been years now since I wrote about this, so a refresher is probably in order:
I wrote about it, the tattoo, while sitting at a desk in a hotel room in Seattle. I had traveled for a week-long conference to help me sort through the work at Kindred Place, and I was thinking, as I wrote, about all the changes and decisions I had made —most notably limiting business travel— to accommodate motherhood.
I’d been thinking about it differently, though. I’d been thinking in the context of wedding rings and promises, of ownership and memorials and impermanence.
And then I continued to think about it for so long that I’d almost let it go.
I asked, when my daughter and I were planning our adventure: What do you want for your birthday, since you’ll turn 18 while we’re away?
She answered: The trip is my present. But you said one time that maybe we could get matching tattoos. Did you mean it, or were you just saying it?
My body, still sturdy, though not tall in the context of my family, is a collection of scars: A chickenpox scar under one eyebrow. A mark on my chin from a second grade bicycle accident. A shaving scar on my leg that grew into a larger scar when I vainly underwent plastic surgery to remove it. Remnants of skinned knees, teenage acne, growth spurts, and little purple marks left behind from removing odd-looking discolorations that turned out to be benign.
The longest, deepest scars are hidden by a bit of sagging skin that, having stretched to accommodate two pregnancies, won’t ever snap back into place. Until recently those two parallel lines were the only marks that could have been classified as voluntary. They weren’t entirely voluntary, of course; but, then again, they were.
It was my choice to be a mother, my choice to let my heart live outside my body.
It would still be my choice, if I were choosing again.
She said: I saw a girl today who had a tattoo I thought was cool, and her friend had a matching one, and I think it would look good on us. If you meant it, I mean. If you’ll really do it.
She drew and re-drew the image, which looks vaguely like a moon and sun together. What it means, I don’t really know. I’ve decided, in my silver age, that I don’t need to know everything.
At the farmers market last Saturday, I got out of my car and heard a great commotion overhead: Geese, flying south for the winter, to nurture their young. I pointed my tiny phone camera at the sky, catching them before they disappeared.
I had a shopping list for this market trip, looking for things I knew would be in season that my daughter might try, in her last fall at home before she leaves for college. Walking from booth to booth, collecting lettuce and autumn squash, I ran into a friend who wanted to know all about the big trip, wanted to hear what comes next.
I peeled back the sleeve of my sweater, exposing a new scar that is, at my daughter’s request, identical to the one on her own arm.
I said, to my friend: I don’t know what’s next, but I believe it’s going to be OK.