My favorite tattoo reminds me of the home I can’t go back to

My mom moved to Europe when I was 22. She was 42, and it’d been a while since her and my dad officially divorced. I’d lived in Fairbanks, Alaska since I was 19. I left my family thinking everything would stay the same it had as when I left. Mom would call saying her and dad went out dancing and how hot he looked in the tight shirt she’d bought him. It was easier to move away knowing I’d always have an old room to sleep in if I needed.

But that’s not how life works. One year for the holidays I returned to visit Mom in her apartment in Seattle where she’d taken our household items and crammed them into a little space. “Home,” as I’d known it, had disappeared. I had an awkward lunch with Dad in some diner where he said he was happy with his new wife and her three boys. “It’s nice just having boys around,” he said.

I’d befriended a tattoo artist in Fairbanks who’d studied with the great black-and-gray portrait artist Tom Renshaw. Reed Leslie is a tall, gangly type of guy with long, reddish-blonde hair. He has one of those laughs that are a unique sort of gigglish cackle, and he does it all the time. His face is only serious when he was working, which was most of the time.

Over a few years, I approached him with several tattoo ideas. My first was a large butterfly on my lower back, and a tree frog on my calf. I had him do a gorgeous, detailed Brian Froud illustration of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream on my shoulder, and a large fairy on my back.

I asked him to duplicate a photo of my mom and me after I’d come back from that Thanksgiving visit. While I was there, I’d walked down to a neighborhood bar with my mom from her place in Seattle, and felt so disoriented. I missed my home, and I missed the family I had grown up with. Change is inevitable, but I wanted a way to hang on to the place I remembered.

My dad had taken the photo. He’d wanted to be a photographer then. My mom held my two-year-old hand as we walked down to the place where the rocks stopped and the ocean began. She was only 22, and had on short, jean shorts, a flannel, and tennis shoes. I had a blue and orange zip-up hoodie with my hair in pig tails. Her posture was hunched, attentive. I imagine she was telling me something about the water, or answering one of my questions. Or maybe we stood in silence, deep in the trance the incoming waves create.

The tattoo’s on the front of my ankle and it has no solid lines. It’s an impression of the photograph in black and gray ink by shading alone, but its detail is remarkable. “That is just the coolest little tattoo!” Reed had said when he’d finished it.

“Oh, wow, I thought that was a smudge of bike grease!” someone said about it several years later. I looked down at my leg, pulling up my rolled-up cuff. I had been riding my bike, so I guess it was an honest mistake. My mom and I weren’t talking then. Or maybe we were, but it wouldn’t last long. “Who is that?” they asked. “Or what is it?”

“It’s a portrait of me and my mom,” I said. They squinted, and nodded, but if they’d looked close, they’d have seen the stripes on the sides of my mom’s shoes.

The beach where my mother and I walked in the photo is in a crook of northwest Washington, just north of Seattle, called Deception Pass. A stretch of road there is unchanged, and winds under the trees that are heavy with moss. Whenever I return to the area, I make a point to drive that stretch of road and visit the shore, however brief of stay I can allow. That road, those trees, the rocks on the shore—that’s home to me. The tattoo reminds me of that, too. That home doesn’t necessarily have to be a house, but an area, and a moment in time.

I tell people it’s my favorite tattoo and it’s not a lie. It brings up a melancholy feeling, an ache, remembering the home that I can’t go back to. But then, I remember, that I carry that home with me, always.

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