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Excerpt: 'Why Is My Mother Getting A Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask'

Last Thanksgiving, right about the time that our family had finished scraping up the last of our triple fleet of pies (pecan, chocolate, and pumpkin) my mother pushed away from the table, dabbed her lips with a napkin and calmly made an announcement.

"I'm gettin' a tattoo," she said.

All of us froze. Most even stopped chewing, a testament to the gravity of the situation.

She looked around, defiant. "I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'm doing it, and that's that."

Our dining table, strewn with artificial pumpkins and votive candles in harvest colors, suddenly transformed into a hushed, packed courtroom. Nobody spoke.

I cleared my throat. "Mom," I said. "Mom. You're not a kid. You're __." [A note here. I have been requested not to reveal my mother's age, as she looks considerably more youthful than her calendar age and would prefer to 'let people wonder.']

Dinah's fork hovered motionless over the last scrap of her chocolate pie. "What do you plan to get, exactly?" she asked in a faint voice. "Have you thought about it?"

My mother drew herself up, relishing the moment. "I've decided to get a raven."

"Why?" Dinah still hadn't resumed eating. I had already finished my chocolate pie and wondered if I could finish hers, provided that she cut away the parts her fork had touched.

My mother shrugged. "I don't know why. I've always liked ravens. Maybe that's my totem or something, I don't know. They just appeal to me."

"I think I need to be fanned," I heard Heather mutter to her husband, Rob. Then she asked my mother where she planned to have this tattoo inscribed.

"On my wrist," she replied, waving her left hand over what I felt was a very large area of her right wrist.

Dinah tried again. "Is this some sort mid-life thing?"

My mother laughed. "I've passed mid-life. Am I having a later in life crisis? No. I just think it's going to make me happy." Then I stepped in. "You'll get tired of looking at it, believe me. Don't you get sick of your clothes, your jewelry? You go out and buy new ones and give the old ones to Goodwill. Well, you can't do that with tattoos. Simon Doonan once called them 'permanent bell-bottoms.'"

At the same moment, we all arrived the collective realization that my father had not yet said a word. Every head snapped to where he sat at the long table opposite Mom. His resigned expression made it clear that they had already chewed the issue over.

Heather frowned. "Dad? You have nothing to say?"

He sighed and put down his fork. "Well," he began finally. "I wish she wouldn't do it, because it's not easy to reverse those things. Your mother is a beautiful woman. She doesn't need to make a statement. Why be a human billboard?"

My dad shook his head. "But you know your mother. The more you protest, the more determined she is to do it. When I object heavily to something, she'll get her back up. I gave her my opinion, and either she takes it or she doesn't. I respect her decision if that's what she wants to do, but I don't agree with it. Styles come and go. What's it going to look like when she's all wrinkled up? You're not going to be able to tell what the hell it is. I don't know, a butterfly on the wrist?""Didn't you hear her?" said Heather. "She wants a raven."

My dad raised his eyebrows. "Hm. Even worse. A black raven? That's kind of dark, isn't it? It will just look like a liver spot gone wild."

My mom laughed merrily. "It's my body," she said. "I do not understand why everyone is getting so upset."

I raised my eyebrows and informed her that had I floated the idea of a tattoo for myself ten years ago, she would not have approved.

She nodded. "Correct. I think ten years ago you would have been too young to decide something that was permanent. At my age, I'm certainly more aware that this is something I want for the rest of my life." My mother's little announcement would have been considerably less jarring if I had the sort of parents some of my friends had, ones who smoked pot with their kids or strolled around the house nude or passed on their treasured collection Hendrix records. But my folks had always been unapologetically square.

I tried for levity. "If you're going to be radical, why not go all the way? Get a tattoo that fools the eye. How about a port wine stain? Or give yourself a chin cleft."

"Why not lengthen your butt crack halfway up your back?" said Heather. "That would freak out everyone in your garden club." Tom cleared his throat. "Some senior citizens have gotten tattoos that say 'Do not resuscitate,'" he pointed out. "Just an option." "

The laughter faded and we stared at our plates while my mother dug with gusto into the remainder of her pie. I could tell she was feeling pretty satisfied with herself. Heather's husband Rob, who has age-appropriate tribal tattoos of his own, jumped up to bring out more decaf coffee and to remove himself from the awkwardness. We all watched him intently as he poured it into our mugs. "Well," I said at length. "I suppose if you're going to go through with it, will you at least allow me to choose the place you go to? I have friends who have gotten tattoos and I don't want you going to some fly-by-night joint."

"Sure," said my mom, nodding. "Sure."

"In fact," I went on, "A crony of mine just wrote an article on the best tattoo artists on New York City. They're the ones who work on various celebrities. They don't come cheap, but then again, I suppose this is a pretty important decision."

Dinah and Heather looked at me, their eyes widening with incredulity and then narrowing. I knew I'd hear about it later.

The moment arrived after dinner, as I settled into my parents' guestroom wearing a pair of my mother's pale yellow Liz Claiborne sweats. Tom was downstairs playing video soccer with Rob and I was gearing up to flip through a pile of my mother's Southern Living magazines. I could not get enough of their demented recipes, my very favorite being a Turtle Trifle, which involves cutting a pecan pie into cubes, and layering it in a trifle dish with mascarpone cheese, fudge sauce, caramel sauce, and more pecans. That's it. (I laugh, but would I eat it? Oh yes. Yes, I would.)

And it seemed to be an editorial requirement that each issue contain some variation of a recipe for cornbread — cornbread crepes, open-faced shrimp cornbread sandwiches. Ah. Here we go: cornbread croutons. Hm, I thought absently. I might eat that. A little heavy, sure, but...

A loud knock interrupted my thoughts and Dinah and Heather burst in without an invitation. They both took a seat on the bed.

I looked at them. "Did you notice that we're all wearing Liz Claiborne sweats? What, did Mom just pass them out to everyone? They have a weird way of making us look shorter, don't you think?"

They wouldn't be distracted. Heather got right into it. "You know what, Jancee? I think you're an enabler."

"You are," Dinah put in. "You made the whole process seem fun, like, 'let's go to New York City and have a crazy day in the East Village, getting a tattoo.'""Whoa," I said. "Why are you people turning on me? I think this is a horrible idea, too."

"You know why?" said Dinah. "If we hadn't started screaming, this might have gone away. If you hadn't turned it into this grand adventure where you take her to New York, then she wouldn't do it. It's all about attention. I know Claire's only five, but I've already thought about this: when she comes to tell me she's going to pierce her nose, I'm not even going to look up from my book."

Heather smirked. "I hate to tell you, Dinah, but for if she's going to pierce her nose, all she needs is a bathroom, rubbing alcohol and an earring."

Dinah looked at me. "And of course you're excited about this announcement because you're going to write about it. I mean, come on. We're not dumb."

I acknowledged that for a writer always on the hunt for material, this was a little gift sent straight from heaven on a fluffy pink cloud.

Dinah shook her head. "You know what this is? It's clichéd rebellion," she said. "I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think this way about Mom. It's rare that I don't think the things she does are pretty great. Usually she's so sure of herself and I don't know, this one I don't understand." Heather flopped back grumpily onto my pillows. "The tattoo will clash with her radish pin. I'm just not amused. It's silly. If she gets a tattoo, I don't even want to look at it. This doesn't deserve any more talk." She folded her arms. "Case closed."

Excerpted from Why Is My Mother Getting A Tattoo? by Jancee Dunn. Copyright © 2009 by Jancee Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Villard Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Jancee Dunn