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Illustration by Alix Ayoub

The Mom with the Hummingbird Tattoo

The exact moment I lost my innocence? January 4, 2013, 10:37 a.m. or so (EST), when my mom unintentionally showed me her below-the-belt hummingbird tattoo.

Right.

I’m in Indiana, on a couch in the house I grew up in. On my left: Mom and Dad. On my right: my wife Michelle, who considers my parents to be the most resourceful, big-hearted, practical, thoughtful, and wholesome people alive.

The proof: my parents grew up on farms a few miles apart and have been together since high school. Mom is 63, Dad, 65. They aren’t the kind of
people who are best friends and do everything together—they are these people. They sing in a Methodist church choir. They mow grass and grow a 1.5-acre garden. They host Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers’ Club parties and drive a replica Sheriff Griffith ’65 Ford Galaxy in parades. They haven’t seen a movie in a theater since Father of the Bride turned them sour on the experience in 1991. They’ve never gone to a bar simply to have a drink. Waste of time. Too loud. No thanks. Their dates involve antique stores and errand-running. The errands are Mom’s. Dad hasn’t had an errand to run since Mom married him in 1971.

Sitting on the couch having coffee, we’re iScrolling through a bazillion snapshots of our nephews, Owen, age 6, and Will, age 4. My parents have just returned from visiting the boys in Oregon. Their phone is ablaze with pics.

Mom and Dad are documenters, not photographers. Any snapshot taken is kept. Here’s Owen throwing a fit because his pizza lacks sufficient pineapple chunks. Here’s what-evs Will gazing into a pond, or perhaps his future as, I hope, bassist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band Under the Bridge. Here’s Owen on a rock. Here’s some blurry scenery. . .

Despite the mundane pics, the never-ending photo marathon is a treat. We see our nephews once a year, tops.

We’re into the show, gamely commenting on every shot and barreling through, when WHAM-O! A photo of a 4-inch-by-4-inch hummingbird tattooed on a lady pelvis.

“You guys hit a Renaissance fair?” I crack. “You get inked, Mom? That’d be hilarious if . . . ”

My joke trails off and the room goes silent. Is that the tick-tock of the clock in the room or the thudding of my rapid heartbeat? Michelle is stunned. I try to pretend I don’t see what Mom and Dad probably wanted to keep private. Playing it cool, I keep scrolling through the pics. Michelle is having none of this.

“Wait!” Michelle says. “That’s real?”

Dad, proud as can be, says, “Go ahead, show them your ink.”

No way. Photo proof is all I need, but Michelle and Mom and Dad walk to the kitchen. My mom shows Michelle the bird.

“It IS real! No way!”

Nothing is registering in my mind except the image of that bird on what I now know is my mom’s hip—the same Mom who used to yell me awake for church every Sunday, forced us to get haircuts if our hair creeped over our collars or ears, and I assumed, would rain down holy hell on us if we ever desecrated our temples with tattoos.

That bird. It will not fly from my mind. Its colors are bright, its lines are distinct. It looks like any of the real birds that have fed from the backyard feeders my parents have filled since 1978, when their house was built. The image is realistic, sweet, and pure. The bird is one of God’s creatures, not in the flesh but forever on the flesh.

We all know times have changed. Tattoos aren’t just for outlaws, Aaron Neville’s face, and burnouts. Today? Everyone has a tattoo. But my mom? She doesn’t do against-the-grain. She owned one record in her life: Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits!

“Where? When did this happen?” Michelle asks.

“Oh, I don’t know, about four months ago, I think. Dad and I talked to a lot of people and visited some shops,” she says. “We know some people who got tattoos over at Rebelution. They told us it was safe and clean and the people are really nice and . . . ”

Michelle: “Did you say Rebelution?”

The shopping around business is the only part of Mom’s tattoo that reassures me that the world isn’t completely upside-down. Mom—who taught me endurance shopping in ’80s malls—buys nothing without conducting extensive research, including, it turns out, tattoos.

“But how did you decide on a hummingbird?” asks Michelle. Mom: “I like hummingbirds. I just thought, ‘Why not?’”

This made the most sense. My dad and brother and I come from a neurotic line of dwellers and ponderers. Mom lives in the moment, makes decisions, and plows ahead.

It’s just that now “living in the moment” for Mom will mean living in the moment in a tattoo chair at Rebelution. As all tattooed people say, once you get your first piece, you gotta go back for more.

Aaron Beck writes copy for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. He has no tattoos, but is considering going all in with a full back piece.

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