Motherhood, marriage, and manifestation.

I got a tattoo.

We were on a trip, visiting colleges, my daughter and I. She turned 18 while we were traveling, and on her 18th birthday we got matching tattoos, a sun/moon image that she designed, because that’s what we’d agreed to do.

In the waiting area of the ink boutique in Hopewell (the name of which I can’t recall), we debated placement. Shoulder? Wrist? Ankle?

“You do what you want, Mom; I’m putting mine here,” my daughter said, patting the upper part of her left arm. “This is what I want. If you want to do something different, then do it. And if you changed your mind and don’t want to do it at all, that’s fine.”

I’d been thinking about it, the tattoo, for several years by then, inspired by the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Her essay, “You Might Want to Marry My Husband,” published 10 days before she succumbed to ovarian cancer, remains a favorite piece of writing. Her depiction of marriage and motherhood felt familiar in so many wonderful ways and foreign in ways I hope never to experience personally.

The details of her first tattoo (a small “j” on her ankle, companion to the “AKR” on her husband’s wrist) and second (part of a challenge to her readers) broke through a layer of judgment that, in today’s parlance, wasn’t serving the real me.

Upper left arm, on the outside, where the deltoid and lateral tricep muscles interweave. That’s where my daughter and I are sealed together with matching marks. It’s high enough to be covered, if needed, by short sleeves, but prominent enough to proclaim its being there intentionally.

When I first wrote about it, six years ago, the idea was met with a mix of “Do it!” and “Are you having a midlife crisis?” Somewhere in between those two sentiments, I met shared understanding from readers — friends and stangers both — who were also riding the current of life’s inevitable hellos and good-byes, readers who understood the appeal of a tangible reminder for an otherwise abstract kind of intimacy.

That post, The Comfort of Familiar Things, written, edited, and re-written in a hotel room in downtown Seattle, got picked up by the WordPress team and shared, 2017-style, on “Freshly Pressed,” the WP editors’ curated collection from the millions of posts being published daily.

It, the essay about my mother, and the long-form essay about my marriage remain the most “popular” in my 11 years’ worth of writings among readers worldwide.

Including my own children.

“You should write more,” they both say to me, not infrequently, “just not with embarrassing pictures of us.”

“How did we get to be so old?” I ask a friend.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Because we’re lucky?”

We’re standing at a hotel bar with a handful of other friends, gathered together for the weekend to celebrate a child’s wedding. The child, with his bride-to-be and other members of the extended wedding party, are mingling behind us, still in rehearsal dinner attire.

They, the betrothed and their friends, are in their 20s, the age we old people were when most of us met.

The bar was scheduled to close at midnight, but that hour comes and goes with all the bar tabs still open and feeding the kind of storytelling that happens only at weddings, funerals, and class reunions.

“Do you think they’re looking at us,” I ask my friend, gesturing to the bar tables behind us, “saying, ‘damn — look at the old people still partying at 1 a.m.!’ and wondering if they’ll ever do the same?”

“That’s what we did,” he says, and I agree.

We talk about our children, work, marriage, and other realities. We’ve been friends long enough not to tell glossy, boastful stories. Then again, our friendship was likely forged in our shared distaste for that kind of thing.

“You should write more,” my friend says.

We shuffle places at the bar, my friend-since-our-20s (who encourages my writing) and I. He shifts to the group of men telling tales of rehearsal dinners past, and I catch up with his wife, who is also my friend.

We talk about cocktails, dogs, memories, and the future.

She recounts the tale of happenstance that led, ultimately, to her marriage. “The universe finds a way,” she says, and I nod.

I notice the small art on her arm and learn that she and her daughter (who is my son’s age) also sport matching ink.

We compare notes about what we’ll do next on that front, now that we’ve broken the seal. To us the idea of tattoos and piercings still feels daring and rebellious. To our daughters, it borders on ordinary.

“My kids don’t want to have kids,” she says.

“Mine either,” I respond.

“At least that’s how they feel right now,” we both say, noting how very young our children still are, and how young we were, even though we didn’t know it at the time.

In a long-ago part of my life, I bought a fly rod and trail bike.

Having tried on, then taken off, the various lifestyles of The Preppy Handbook, the black-coat-wearing artist, and the Ann Taylor-clad corporate marketing newbie, I was drawn to explore a kind of life for which I had no role model. And in this imagined life, I was, in addition to all of the other things tucked into my young experience, an outdoorswoman.

Yes; I would be a well-mannered, creative, successful, outdoorsy type who would also, soon, be a wife and mother.

Whose wife? Yet to be determined. But he would be tall, handsome, smart, and outdoorsy.

How many children? Two: a boy and a girl, two years apart, the boy the older of the two.

I would drive a Volvo station wagon.

And I would find the key to all of these things on a mountain bike trail; I was sure of it.

Did I enjoy trail riding? Not particularly, though I can admit that to myself only now, years later. I didn’t like the mud, the bugs, or the lack of bathrooms. In particular, I did not like the inherent danger of flying over rocks and stumps, through snake-filled woods, and navigating steep cliffs.

The ride I remember most clearly was when I took a nasty fall and landed inches from the edge of a deep ravine. (Note: Helmets really do save lives.) I walked away with only scrapes and bruises, my bike still intact, but I looked, from hip to knee, like I’d been in a car wreck.

Days later, the friend I was riding with confessed that she watched my fall in terror, sure I was going to slide over the trail edge into the rock bed below. Her reaction in the moment, though, betrayed none of that fear. She was funny and casual, as if that kind of fall happened all the time. Nothing to see here; no need to fret.

“What were you looking at, when you fell?” another friend asked.

“The big tree stump,” I said.

“That’s why you fell,” he said. “You have to look at the open trail, not the obstacle. Your body goes wherever you’re looking, so you always have to see the clear path.”

Though I abandoned the fantasy of my mountain-bike-riding self a long time ago, I’ve held on to these words of advice and the deeper meaning in them.

If I’d thought of it, I’d have thanked my friend in person for the enduring wisdom and thanked his wife (of 20-something years now) for the kindness of not telling me at the time how bad the accident really was.

But it was 1:30 in the morning, and we were still celebrating a festive wedding party, and we had so many other things still to catch up on.

I went to the wedding by myself.

One of our dogs, a 15- or 16-year old rescued chocolate Lab, is too old to kennel and too … messy (incontinent)… for us to impose her care on friends or housesitters. So my husband, who, in every version of our story, is a tall, handsome, smart, outdoorsy type, stayed home to care for the dog while I went out of town for the wedding.

“They’re your friends anyway,” he’d said, “and while I’d kind of like to go, I think you’ll have more fun going by yourself.”

On the drive to Hunstville, I listened to Offshore, the novel my book group selected for this month’s reading. Written by Penelope Fitzgerald, who launched her literary career in 1975, at the age of 58, it’s a tale of eccentric people who don’t fit neatly into any conventional plot line, which felt both comforting and familiar.

I drove home accompanied not by audiobook but by live conversation with a friend of more than 30 years. It was important to him to be home in time for Mother’s Day festivities in the morning, and it was important to me to manage the energy required for big social events.

So we headed back to Memphis soon after the wedding, after congratulating the groom we’d both come to celebrate. On the ride home we talked about families and friendships. I thought about my father’s words, toward the end of his life: “I have fewer friends in my old age, but I know who I can count on.”

Three and a half hours after leaving Hunstville, I dropped my friend at his car and made my way home, expecting to find man and dogs asleep.

“Hey, hey, hey!” called a familiar voice when I walked into the kitchen.

My daughter, with help from her father and brother, pulled off an impressive surprise, arriving home four days earlier than expected. “To surprise you for Mother’s Day!” she said. “Sneaky, sneaky,” her father added.

“And tomorrow, Dad and I are going to go grocery shopping,” my daughter added, “so you can stay home and write, or whatever you want to do. Because it’s Mother’s Day.”

It’s easy, perhaps, to look back on life and say “the universe finds a way,” to believe (if so inclined) that each of us is part of a larger story, guided by invisible fate that we sometimes call coincidence.

What is more likely true is that the universe we construct comes from the focus of our attention. The path one sees is the path one follows.

Truer still is that somewhere in between these two world views live those still, small voices of dreams, fears, and desires alternately named “subconscious” and “God.”

For me, they ride the cross currents of known and unknown, the things over which I have control and things over which I do not, decisions I have or haven’t made.

I wonder, still, where they’re leading.

And, from time to time, while I’m figuring that out, I write.


  1. This is perfect. You are perfect. In the mess and the wandering and the beauty and all the things.
    If I got a tattoo it would be six strokes of ink in a row along the thumb side of my right pointer finger, like stitches, my insular family marked in a row holding me together. I keep that plan in my back pocket for the day my daughter tells me we should get tattoos together. (I feel like this comment is the beginning of a piece of writing myself. Why is it that great writing always makes me want to write? Thank you for that, always.)(And happy mother’s day.)

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