All my life my father has worn a greenish cross tattoo, about 3 inches long, on his left forearm. I have always admired it, but he grows vague and shifty whenever I ask him about this silent monument to his youth.
Of course, asking a man a question requires a whole artistic finesse of its own. If you are serious about achieving an answer, you often must become the Bible’s persistent widow and perhaps wait for years to acquire the particulars you pursue. Sometimes the particulars can only blossom out during a good dinner with excellent company. And like I said, sometimes that evening doesn’t come for years.
I asked my father about his tattoo during my birthday dinner last weekend, attended by my best friend Kayla.
“When did you get that tattoo?” I asked. I felt a small sense of entitlement common among people having birthdays.
My mother, Kayla, and I looked over the cake at him while he slowly admitted he was 16 or 17.
“Were you a Christian?” I continued.
Here he halted, unsure. This question can be hard in the burnt-over North, where in your younger days you gauge your spiritual state by how many times you walked the aisle at the evangelistic youth rally. At about that age my father was coming out of the Mormon church he was raised in, and hitting other bumps on the way to adulthood. God was chasing him down, and would soon corner him with a pair of headphones, a tape of old hymns, and some honest farmers who loved him. Next would come my mother, the good Baptist girl. After that would come my brother Isaac and then me. But first, the tattoo.
We garnered few other facts about my father’s tattoo that night, but we did relearn how much he hates tattoos in general. He hates to see me use pen ink even to write a reminder on my hand.
My father believes tattoos have a component of inherent selfishness, of ostentation, of vanity. The artist in me finds them shortsighted but potentially very cool. My dad’s tattoo is part of him, and it’s part of him I love.
“I thought it was so cute,” said my mother, calling back memories of dating.
Kayla addressed my father: “I have a tattoo, Scott.”
“So do I,” I said.
“So do I,” my mother said.
My mother and I were only teasing. But Kayla does have a tattoo, a tiny light brown one running along the base of her foot in an Ethiopian language: “This world is not my home.” She maintains she chose the text because it will be true until she dies.
I still don’t know why my father, in his spirited youth, chose a cross to brand his skin. But God knows. And it will be true for the rest of his life. It will be true even when he gets a new skin.
As my brother Isaac faithfully points out to me, I tend to be too judgmental. I recognize this failing as a profound lack of curiosity, since every decision has a story lurking behind it.
“Curiosity.” I wanted to write that word down one night last week while lying in bed, so that I would remember to warn my fiancé that sometimes I’m not very good at it. Curiosity. I wrote it on my hand with ink.