Illustration by Joe Anderson
The other night my family indulged in a ritual that has become scarce in the past year — dinner at home with all four of us. Luke is back from college for the summer, so he, his not-so-little sister, Thea, my partner, Dee Dee, and I could dine and converse and enjoy each other’s company — even as that entailed a dose of affectionate foolishness from the young’uns.
Amid our mutating conversation around the table that night, the topic of tattoos came up. For years now, my beloved — and still un-inked — offspring have occasionally gibed me with references to getting tattoos. I began the parenting journey at the age of 40, and I increasingly realize how I am a product of my times. In said times, tattoos were a mark of wantonness and vice. Their bearers were hardcore bikers, gang members, gamblers and other social deviants (with some leeway for World War II veterans, whose body art was often surely a product of some shoreline devilment). But, in general, no respectable citizen would have gotten a tattoo, and, for better or worse, most employers would not have hired tattoo-bearing applicants.
I am well aware how much things have changed: Tattoos have become mainstream, a respected or at least tolerated form of body art and self-expression. I even get the sense that a young person without a tattoo today is far more the outlier.
So I was hardly surprised — in fact, I had been dreading the day — when my children first brought up the matter of tattooing. They usually raise the subject in the request or permission mode, or they’ll test me by querying, “What would you do if I got a tattoo?” At first, knowing my old-head opposition, they largely were humoring me. But as their lives unfolded into tween- and teen-dom, their petitions have carried more substance. Luke, having crossed the threshold of 18, now glibly insinuates that he is beyond the need for parental sanction, so he is merely preparing us for the inevitable transgression. As for 16-year-old Thea, I have toyed with her by asserting that my permission would be contingent on specifics — to wit, that I might accept a bold design inked across her forehead with the words, “I love my dad!”
As the debate unfolded at this particular meal, Thea presented a sly albeit serious negotiating riposte: She wanted to tattoo the words “I will always love you” on her wrist — in my handwriting. I had said those words to her, she told me, and she wanted always to be able to glance at this reminder of the truth whenever she needed it.
The mealtime levity yielded for a brief moment to a quiet surge in my spirit, for which I had no words. We all acknowledged the beauty of the moment, and loosed the tattoo discussion until its next emergence.
A few days later I was on retreat at a lovely Franciscan hermitage about an hour from home. I spent the days of quiet and reflection circling back to a core theme — or struggle? — in my life. How do I live as “the beloved of God”? As part of that spiritual work, I contemplated numerous biblical verses that stress the overwhelming love God has for us: I have loved you with an everlasting love. . . . I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. . . . When you go through deep waters I will always be with you. . . . I knew you in your mother’s womb. . . . I have written your name on the palm of my hand. . . .
Wait a minute. Did the Bible just say that God has a tattoo? And, if I am hearing Isaiah correctly, is that tattoo a sign of love that will never end?
Could it be that I’d had a prophet at my dinner table just a few nights earlier? Was my daughter engaging in a powerful biblical midrash to which my heart must attend? Even in this mildly contentious matter, was she teaching me something about belovedness that I so deeply need?
I expect the tattoo discussion will recur a few more times before the children are launched and have full authority over their adult bodies. And when the day comes when they proudly — and a bit sardonically — show me their new tattoos, I will silently practice my decades-old parental mantra, “Love them anyway,” and even try, with as much authenticity as I can muster, to admire the art and the self-expression therein. Whether Thea realizes her proposed design remains to be seen. But in any case, this old-fashioned papa will give a prayer of thanks and draw deeply on the mystery and miracle of God’s love, which comes in unexpected forms.
Will O’Brien lives with his family in the Vine & Fig Tree community in Philadelphia. He coordinates The Alternative Seminary and is active in issues of homelessness and poverty.