Attitudes Toward Tattoos In My Family


Tattoos have always been considered taboo in my family. I remember talking to my grandpa about them one day while we washed his 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe out in the front yard of his house. It was a brilliant July day at my grandparent’s house in the small farm-town-turned-college-town of Moscow, Idaho with few clouds sparsely piped across the sky. The 85-degree temperature made it the perfect weather for washing cars. My grandpa drove the Model A out of one of the weather-worn barns he used to store part of his collection of old cars. The simple 4-cylinder engine coughed and rumbled as if it had just woken up from a long nap as my grandpa drove the car across the gravel driveway and onto the lawn. He parked it on top of his perfectly trimmed and watered vivacious green grass next to the house so that the hose would reach it. 

“Grandpa, do you have any tattoos?” I asked curiously as I began to hose down the beige-green body of the Model A. Bursts of lukewarm water hit the car and splashed back towards me as I made my way around the car. The cloth roof turned from Arabian sand to a murky peanut color after the water had saturated it.

“No, Sofia, I don’t have any tattoos,” my grandpa answered, handing me a sponge loaded up with soap and bubbles oozing out of it. I took the sponge and got to work scrubbing the surface of the already spotless car. Not a square inch of mud or dirt or even bird poop was visible – even before hosing it down. Its only flaw was a light film of dust building up from the months it spent in the barn since using it the previous summer. My grandpa always took excellent care of all his old cars and prided himself on it. Several years ago, he had my grandma help him make a book with pictures and descriptions of each of the 21 old cars he owned. This book came with him to many family events and he loved to tell us grandkids about the special features of his cars, the years they were made, and when and where he had bought them – to name a few things. 

I scrubbed the hood while my grandpa cleaned the custom powder-coated red wheels he had put on the car. “Why don’t you or grandma or mom or dad or anyone have them? Don’t you think they’re kinda cool?” I said as I polished the chrome flying quail ornament that sat on the nose of the hood. My middle school self was going through a phase of deep interest in tattoos and was curious what my grandpa would have to say. He chuckled, his belly bouncing ever so slightly, and the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth grew more pronounced from the smile he flashed back at me. 

I dunked the sponge back into the soapy bucket and moved onto mopping down the dramatic ink-black fenders that housed the wire-spoked wheels. “Well,” he said, “tattoos last forever. They are something that you must live with for the rest of your life. If you get a tattoo, you should have an excellent reason for getting one. I've always thought they were unattractive, and people don’t look good with them. And I’ve never had a reason to get one anyways.” 

That was the same reason my parents gave me as to why they didn’t have any. However, coming from my grandpa, it seemed to make more sense and made me realize I didn’t think I would ever actually get one. My grandpa was one of the wisest people I knew, and I always took what he said to heart. “You know what, Grandpa? I think you're right. They are sorta ugly,” I responded back and tucked the conversation into the back of my pocket.

He gave me a wink then proceeded to spray me with the hose he was using to rinse off the mound of bubbles that had accumulated on the car. Icy water zapped my skin and drenched my Nike shorts and t-shirt. Chills swept through my body, but at the same time, it was a refreshing counter to the sizzling afternoon sun taunting my body to break a sweat. I screamed and giggled and ran circles around the car as my grandpa chased me with the hose. After my third lap around the car, I snatched the soap-water bucket off the ground and launched what little water was left in it at my grandpa – but missed by several feet. We didn’t stop laughing until we’d finished drying off the car with the rugged old towels my grandma brought out for us to use. 

The only thing left now was to wipe down the rumble seat and the interior of the car. After that, my grandpa promised he would drive my cousins and me into town in the Model A to get ice cream at the local Ben and Jerry’s my dad used to work at when he was in high school. 

I took on the job of polishing the rumble seat’s cream leather while my grandpa did the inside. The rumble seat – an exterior cushioned seat that folds into the back of the car – was my favorite thing about the Model A. Not only did riding in the rumble seat make you feel like royalty being chauffeured around in the back of a modern carriage, but there were also no seatbelts! Whenever my grandpa took my cousins and me out for a spin in the car, I always got to ride in the rumble seat because he knew just how much I loved it.

Five minutes later, we piled into the Model A and we headed down the road. Wind blew through my sopping wet hair while I waved to cars and people passing by.  I was smiling so wide you could see all 32 of my teeth. My grandpa honked the horn several times as a friendly hello to walkers and bikers on the sidewalks. The Model A’s horn joyful croaking ahooga announced that we were on our way into town to get some ice cream. 

That was one of the last memories I have with my grandpa. The following winter, my grandpa was killed by a mentally ill man on a shooting spree. He was in his office meeting a client on a Saturday, when the man came into the building and shot them both in the chest multiple times. Police engaged in a car chase down the highway for over 25 miles reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour before the gunman rolled his car into a ditch off the side of the road. Local police captured the man, and he was eventually sentenced to life in prison. My grandpa was rushed to a hospital, but he died before the ambulance even arrived.

I woke up that day to a familiar Saturday morning smell of bacon and pancakes sizzling on the griddle. The aroma wafted up the stairs, down the hallway, and straight into my room. It woke me up and sent my sister and me flying down the stairs for breakfast. Just before reaching the bottom step, I staggered to a halt in front of two gaunt faces with silent tears pouring down their cheeks. My parents had just gotten off the phone with my uncle and sat my sister and me down on the couch to explain what had happened. 

It felt like all the blood in me had evaporated from my body. My skin was just an empty shell holding in my bones and muscles; I felt hollow – emotionless. My nervous system shut down and I didn’t move for what felt like hours. Not one tear left my eyes until that night when I was brushing my teeth. As I used a towel to wipe off the bit of toothpaste that had escaped my mouth, a fiery rage filled my stomach and boiled through my abdomen until it was released in a steady stream of tears that I had been holding back all day.

Five years later, I sat in a cushioned black chair with my left foot on a raised platform and waded through some old memories I had with my grandpa. A buzzing sound filled the air as I remembered washing the Model A and other times I had visited my grandparents in Moscow. A pinch on my foot made me jump. I turned away and looked out the window. A leaf the color of a fiery sunset drifted to the ground. It brought me back to when I would visit my grandparents in the fall with my cousins. 

In the fall, my grandpa loved it when we helped him in the garden. His favorite activity with us was always harvesting potatoes. We’d trek through the mud, past the wilting raspberry plants, underneath the apple trees, and straight to the potato patch that sat in the far-right corner of the garden. Getting down on his knees, my grandpa would show us how to dig up potatoes. Following his instructions, my cousins and I sank our hands beneath the stems and into the rich, chocolatey soil. We began to uproot the potatoes and untangle them from their stringy roots. Soon enough, the old, ripped jeans and stained sweatshirt I was wearing were completely plastered in mud. My grandpa walked circles around each of us and gave us pointers on how to perfect our harvesting techniques as we tore through the rows of potatoes. His face glowed with pride and his usually gentle stride had a little extra bounce to it by the time we were done.

I grinned at this thought. My grandpa taught me many lessons in the importance of working hard and dedicating time to the things you love. The way he took care of his cars and garden and spent extra time with clients at work always inspired me.

The buzzing sound stopped and a numbness in my foot brought me back to the present. I looked down and smiled. Although my grandpa may not be around anymore, and some of my memories of him have started to fade, the one lasting thing I now had to always remind me of him and all he taught me, was a thin black outline of a 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe tattooed on the inside of my left heel.

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