All the tattoos I didn’t get—and the one I did

The first tattoo I didn’t get was a lotus flower. I was 17, away at a summer program in New York City, lured by the idea of doing something not quite legal to demarcate my newfound teenage freedom. I imagined it to be dainty, almost a watercolor with white ink. But the shops in the East Village willing to turn a blind eye to an underage teenager getting a tattoo were not ones who specialized in delicate work. And anyway, my ideas of getting a tattoo were close to my plans for adulthood: nebulous, ambitious, and deeply uninformed. Two of my friends broke curfew to go get inked—one sported a Chinese character on her hip, the other, a lotus flower on her back. I chickened out and stayed back at the dorm, doodling imagined versions of tattoos to come.

At 19, in college back in New York City, I missed my family in Alabama. There’s something about distance that clarifies the things you couldn’t quite appreciate when you’re in the thick of a place. When I told people where I was from, they asked, half-jokingly, about tractors and cotton fields, things I only saw on field trips away from where I grew up in Birmingham. I wanted something to remind me of the summer days thick with honeysuckle, the rust-red clay in my backyard, the warm, familiar drawl of my neighbors. An okra pod on my ankle? A scrolling “y’all” somewhere on my foot? I thought about getting a version of Vulcan, the great half-clothed iron god that watched over Birmingham at night, somewhere on my ribs. Instead, I got a necklace with a miniature version of the statue, a talisman to help thwart homesickness.

When I was 20, my parents moved to Jackson, Mississippi, while I was living in India for a summer. It wasn’t that far, at least in terms or how wide the world is: Just four hours to the west, and slightly further south from where I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. But when I returned from a long flight across the globe to see my parents’ new place for the first time, it seemed impossibly far from where I grew up. The South of Jackson was closer to New Orleans, closer to Texas. There were rodeos and year-round king cake instead of wisteria vines and boiled peanuts. Now, years later, the move seems like a small shift, but back then it felt enormous. I was lonely and disoriented without my childhood friends to call up and the whistle of trains chugging through Birmingham to lull me asleep at night.

I’ve always oriented myself in places through reading. Novels, like maps, are not the whole truth, but they contain important ones. I began reading and re-reading Eudora Welty, who lived and wrote about Jackson. I visited her house and sat on the bench in her garden. I thought about the ways that places are living entities as well as physical locations, how the word “home” changes at different points in your life. “One place comprehended,” Welty wrote, “Can make us understand all places better.” It seemed to me, to be so.

I wrote about Welty’s garden, and had the good fortune of having an editor read and like my piece, who encouraged me to write more about the South and its writers. And so I started writing a book about where I grew up, and the way I learned to understand the South through reading. I visited Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks in Milledgeville, Georgia, and ate catfish at one of Harper Lee’s favorite restaurant. I talked to a mule farmer who was a cousin of the writer Harry Crews, and traveled to Oxford to see William Faulkner’s liquor cabinet.

At Faulkner’s house, I started thinking about a new tattoo: It would be the map Faulkner drew of the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, a place that’s both imaginary and based on the real section of Mississippi he lived in. Because, I was realizing, that’s exactly what home is: not just the house you grow up in, or where you keep your stuff.  Home is an act of collective imagination, a place that you carry with you. It’s both real and more than real, something you can take with you anywhere. Once I finished that book and knew for sure it was coming out, I told myself, I would finally do it. I would get that tattoo.

The day after Christmas last year, the manuscript of that book, South Toward Home, was finally in. I nervously brought the map Faulkner drew in the back of Absalom, Absalom to a tattoo artist in Jackson. My youngest brother, who moved with my family to Jackson when he was 13 and knows the place as home, came with me, and decided to get a section of the same map in solidarity. I chattered to the artist incessantly as the needles filled in the lines of the railways and rivers, trying not to think about the thin white heat scratching down my arm.

Now, when anyone asks about my tattoo, I tell them about my book, and about my brother, my family. I tell them about my home.

If you want to know more about Margaret’s book, South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, check it out right here.

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