By Carolyn Butcher
I’m no tramp, but at the age of 48 I had a tattoo of a monarch butterfly applied to the back of my right hip. It is in flight–the tawny orange wings are up and the long, graceful hind legs float behind it as if it has just taken off from a flower. It is a butterfly in its prime.
This is the story of why it is there: Around the time of her fourteenth birthday, my daughter came to me with a look that told me I was about to face one of those parental moments that have to be handled just right. With her hand on her hip, Susannah said: “I’m going to get a tattoo.”
“Well,” I said, playing for time, “I have always told you and your brother that you are responsible for your own bodies, so if you really want to do something permanent like that …”
“WHAT?” she shrieked, “You would actually let me get a tattoo?”
My answer to this utilized the golden bluffing rule: When unsure of your facts, state them with such conviction that the opposing side would question their own certainty of your error. I told her: “It is not a question of whether I would let you or not because I would have no say in the matter. After all, no reputable tattoo clinic would take you as a client until you are 18-years-old.”
I had no idea if I was correct, but by using the adjective “reputable” I had an out. If my daughter continued with this plan to mutilate the beautiful alabaster skin that I had lovingly patted with baby powder, protected with SPF 40, and healed with kisses when her brother and his friends had chucked her out of the Little Red Flyer; if she was able to make an appointment at a tattoo parlor, I could always say: “Oh well, they can’t be reputable,” and then frighten the hell out of her with hygiene concerns.
It was only a test–this time–but just when we were both safely back in our corners, I made what some might consider a fatal error, but which turned out to be my Fortunate Fall. Susannah asked: “Surely you don’t like tattoos do you? I mean, you would never get one would you?”
“I would never say never,” I said.
Susannah’s response was joyous and sure: “OK, on my 18th birthday we’ll get tattooed together.” And every year after that, on her birthday, she would give me a look that went through my eyes and connected to my core and say: “Three more years …,” “Two more years …,” and then, “Next year.”
The Christmas before Susannah’s 18th birthday, my mother, who lived in London, died of ovarian cancer. Although she and I had certainly had our own share of verbal battles when I was a teenager, we had grown very close when I had my own family and we talked by phone daily.
I flew to England on the overnight flight on December 19, 1999. Earlier that day, my brother had called me from the hospital and said our mother was close to death; she knew I was on my way and he thought she was waiting for me. I hung up the phone feeling her very close to me and walked into my kitchen where the sun was just hitting the climbing rose outside the back door. Suddenly, an enormous monarch butterfly flew into the sunbeam and floated up and down, back and forth, basking in the warmth.
I thought about the pain my mother, my brother and I would all feel if I walked into her hospital room straight from the airport. As I looked at the monarch, still flitting quietly in the sun, I realized that my mother and I had nothing that needed to be said. Out loud, I said: “Don’t wait for me. It’s really OK.”
Within the hour the phone rang and my brother said simply, “She’s gone.”
The following April, when Susannah turned 18 and said, “OK Mum, let’s go and get that tattoo,” I had no hesitation. I felt honored that my daughter wanted to commemorate her entrance to adulthood by getting tattooed with her mother, and I knew exactly what I wanted to have done.
I have a tattoo of a monarch butterfly on the back of my right hip.
Carolyn Butcher is a writer living in Santa Barbara, California, who lectures in English Literature at Santa Barbara City College. “The Butterfly” is adapted from her memoir, “The Posterity Box,” which is a book of reflections triggered by relics of her past.