Thursday, August 10, 2006

Happy Birthday Dear Tattoo

Eight years ago on my 60th birthday, I got a tattoo, despite knowing I’d be violating Jewish law, perplexing loved ones, and startling onlookers.

Because today, August 10, is our mutual birthday, as a present to my tattoo I’m devoting this post to the artwork of the flesh and including photos of fellow tattoo wearers who are identified at the end of this column.

In 1998 when I acquired my tattoo, I sought to justify the bold act by penning an essay that appeared in “Today’s Chicago Woman” magazine. You can read that piece on my other website and while there check out some additional follies and findings by this writer.

In that original essay, I said I got the tattoo “because achieving age 60 is a chance to thumb your nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics. Who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.”

While this prior theory still holds true, it took the writing of my 1940s memoir, “The Division Street Princess” to provide yet another clue to that rash act eight years ago. In recreating my childhood, I met again the little Elaine I defined as a “fraidy cat.” Besides the timid genes I may have been born with, in those tender years I acquired several real reasons to be scared: run-ins with neighborhood sickos, the terrifying murder of little Suzanne Degnan, squabbling parents with the threat of their divorce, a father I feared would drop dead any moment, a near drowning; and of course, the war overseas with my four young uncles on the front.

Fortunately, many sunny episodes in my memoir balance the dark. But is it any wonder the child I was back then – more dainty than daring, bookish instead of athletic – would grow up to be a skittish adult?

Over the years my disposition improved. Bolstered by good marriages, great children, loyal friends, and successful careers, I slowly discarded many of the fears that clouded my Division Street childhood. And by age 60 (okay, so it took me awhile), I was ready to proclaim a new me. An audacious me. What better way to display this strength than with a tattoo on my left biceps? A wildly-colored, five-inch picture of a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses, intersected by banners bearing the names of my two cheeky daughters, Faith and Jill.

Eight years older now, I understand that the tattoo – wearing my heart on my sleeveless arm, calling attention to myself – not only was a symbol of new courage, but also opened the door to writing the memoir. If I could survive onlookers’ stares, surely I could expose my private self to a wider audience. And based on affectionate and enthusiastic responses to my book, I was correct: truthfulness is welcome; childhood experiences, universal.

While Leviticus 19:28 does state: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord,” and charges me a lawbreaker in my religion, my tattoo does not keep me from being buried in a Jewish cemetery, as many mistakenly believe. And considering all of the other laws I have sideswiped, including marrying my Gentile Tommy (we’re figuring out how to sneak him into the family plot at Waldheim), I’ll take my chances on reckoning day.

Hopefully, my judge on high will weigh both sides of my ledger and declare, “What’s a little tattoo? Let her in.”

Happy Birthday Tattoo!

Photo Captions:
Photo No. 1: Me and my tattoo in 1998.
No. 2: Linda Chaput, our favorite Dapper’s East Family Restaurant waitress displaying one of her six tattoos.
No. 3: Kyle Woods, a South Florida motorcycle stuntman I met in Los Angeles, with tattoos decorating the length of each arm.
No. 4: Taken last year, in this photo my hair is naturally grey (talk about courage!). I’m merely posing, never riding, Dink Adams’ Harley. Dink, a member of my L.A. family, is head of Voodoo Grips, a West Coast film and T.V. production company.

1 comment:

Danny said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY to you and your way cool tattoo! My feeling about tattoos has dramatically changed over the years. They used to scare the bejeesus out of me but now I think many are gorgeous pieces of art and amazing modes of self-expression.

That thing about Jewish cemeteries was always drummed into our heads and I'm glad to hear it's not true since, as you know, your fellow Leo and neighbor, my sister Sue, also has a tattoo. I love your reasons for getting your tattoo eight years ago. Have you ever been tempted to get another one??