Grandma’s Tattoos: A Care Package
Christine De Vuono
Where can we go when the tender thing inside becomes insistent in its need to emerge?
We who are not trained in the art of cocoon-making understand intellectually that the metamorphosis of a butterfly cannot be stopped; otherwise, the changing thing deforms or dies. Yet so many wander the world, their tender thing emerging even when they are not ready, even when it is not safe and on top of the discomfort of becoming a New Thing, there is also fear, possible pain, and maybe even denial that the tender thing is pushing out and cracking their shell. These holders of tender things need a space to change, to metamorphose into the brilliance that is being called into the world, and these are the lovely, vulnerable beings I held in my brain and my fingers that made this big, beautiful, inflated beast.
This thing I have made is unlike any other work of art I have ever created. It speaks to me like a docile, soft creature, one I have to be attentive to as it grows, its fan humming quietly. I tug its base, push furniture aside if I misgauge how much space she requires, and then, when she has reached her fully puffed up size, I open the zip, climb inside, and re-zip it. Then, I wait for the air I let escape to be replenished. Once the ceiling is domed, once the carpets are smoothed out, I lay down and sigh happily. The outside light shines through her skin, the textured ceiling creating mottled colours of warmth and softness. Her sides are full of colours and undulating fabrics that in places are gathered like brain folds, and others taut like multicoloured membranes. The floor is covered with plush hand-crocheted rugs, one pink and orange, one blue and green, circles bigger than I am long so I may stretch out in their fur-like softness. I made this space single-minded, manifesting nurturance, safety, and care – my cocoon of past and future labour vital to making such a place real for those who need such refuge.
I call her Grandma’s Tattoos. In my mind I have gendered her as she is riddled with patterns and fabrics that come from my matriarchal past, patterns that could camouflage into either of my Grandmother’s homes: doilies, table cloths, floral wallpaper, and marks chosen by the matronly elders in my childhood that created spaces for grandkids to thrive. When the beast was nothing but a kaleidoscope of colour balloons in my mind, I trolled fabric stores and charity shops, pulling out dresses and cloth, once explaining to a bemused cashier, “My Grandma wore a dress made of fabric like this for her 50th wedding anniversary.” I clutched a handmade gown that someone made for someone’s prom -– people I will never meet but whose love and labour have outlasted the prom date — and just last week they released it into the world where I bought it for $2.00. I found tablecloths and lace, the decor of such things relegated to the bargain bins where the grannies of yesteryear wring their ghostly hands and watch their carefully darned and stainless white adornments sit in boxes with unwanted knick-knacks. I take some cloth and lace and sew and stencil their souls into my beast, infusing her with the care that was drilled into the mothers that had no choice but to prove their love through labour.
We think so much of the choices we have now. We tell our children they can be whatever their little hearts desire, yet we know that the hand of Father Knows Best is still there, having lost its loud colourings to be almost invisible, catching us unawares. I myself have felt that hand rise up and slap me down leaving me dazed and wondering what happened to my promised dream held in my heart. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, I looked confused at the list of post-natal doctor’s appointments and playdates that, like a bait and switch, took the promised future of Independent Woman and left me both dependent and depended upon. Yelling into the sleepless night – “It was not supposed to be this way!” – I heard a faint laugh in response.
We, the once independent and now depended upon, are always quick to assure all and sundry how much we love our children, but it is not a matter of love. It is a matter of how we love with such adoration, and yet it is not enough; it fills one cup to overflowing, the contents spill over and splash our shoes, while other cups grow cobwebs and cry like forgotten babies. I wanted to fill them, too, and yet they were put on shelves out of reach, put there by Father (who thinks he) Knows Best. The granny ghosts know what has happened. They know that Loving — which they were told leads to happiness — is sneered at. They know it will never be enough in a world that stares unblinking at the rocketing billionaire’s display of orgiastic success, sighing in envy. The grannies remember following the rules that Father Knows Best laid out, the rules that trained them to shovel their love into his mouth like coal into furnaces. They remember the split that came when some grannies threw down their shovels and yelled their rage, while others, mindful of the beings that needed the furnace to chug along, like the elders and the youngers, kept their heads down with astounding endurance.
“But why,” the grannies asked, “are we the only ones to give while all Father does is take? Do we not also need coal in our bellies to fuel our fires? How can we look at our littles and cut their hair and their clothes to look like little Fathers or little Grannies and make them only takers or givers?” Many of the raging Grannies and the heads down Grannies discovered some truths then that they tried to feed us with their coal: that we all have furnaces in our bellies and we all work best if we all have someone to feed us coal and keep us warm. We can all feel the joy of helping and the love of being helped in equal measure. We can hold and fill more than one cup. But people are conflicted. Our littles are promised whatever their hearts desire, but Father’s entrapment of yesteryear makes the dreams of balanced love, vulnerable affection, and the quiet patience of a steeped pot of tea be seen as suspect. And yet, and yet, it is precisely the connection of minds that are at peace with each other’s pain and shortcomings that is the foundation of our strength in hard times.
Father is not so stupid as to not have contingency plans if his loud voice lost its sting. He rigged the game and wrote in the bookies’ ledgers that cheating is the only way to make it in this world, a world where cries of “it’s not fair!” have been made to sound childish and naive, instead of valid, instead of righteous. The hand of Father Knows Best still hovers above us, ready to strike when we can’t keep up with the shifting sands of The Rules that official and unofficial Tellers of What-To-Doers seem to have memorised and refuse to be shifted from. It is the “Way To Success” (this rule following) they believe, the way to Father’s Promises. But they look stunned -– angry even -– when we ask why would we want such promised gifts of dominance and hoarding?
“Why is it,” I ask in the belly of my beast, “that people listen to the siren song of want, of more, of better than our neighbours? Do they think if you have more, you won’t covet thy neighbour’s anything? But that’s not true.”
“Nonsense!” Father shouts back, “you just don’t have enough - yet,” he winks.
I wonder aloud to my beast: “How many times do we have to hear about deathbed regrets, wishing for more time with friends and family, or wishing to have been themselves as they were meant to be, to turn our backs on Father? How many unhappy accounts of half-lives, of giving into bullies, of fear of the tender thing that just wants the sun? How many of these do we have to hear to turn from the empty calories of commodities and conformity and wrap our hands around warm cups of empathy and caring?”
“Shhh,” she hums, as the flower that I put inside her belly spins in the air and the soft, calming light shines through her skin. “You know the answer. Father Knows Best is Wiley and covers his trinkets with the fairy dust of happiness that only fades once they leave the store. He convinces them that economy is more important than caring, that conformity is the way to comfort. And we also know – don’t we – that he lies.”
We sigh together, and I open my beast to emerge in a magic trick of my own. I continue to adorn her, plastering her with stencilled marks of lace and flowers. I choose colours that are vibrant and would make my actual grannies roll in their granny-graves, but this beast is not for them. They inspired her, but their adornments were shaped too much by Father Knows Best and now they have to be pushed to open boxes everywhere. Grandma’s Tattoos is not just for me; she is for all and sundry. She is for those who need to avoid the haters and judgers who still hear Father whispering in their ear. It is for those who want to make their own beasts for their own littles and not-so littles that are needing to manifest their truest selves, however unabashed and colourful that may look. Grandma may have tattoos that I paint on her skin, but she is also pursing her lips to bugle a call for all to gather, to attend, to care and love. Because “tattoo” means more than one thing. And grandmas know how to multitask.
What does your cocoon look like, in your mind’s eye? What marks still live under your skin, embedded by those who love you, unseen by all except the one you will, or have become? The soft voices and strong arms that cradled you at your most fragile? The deep timbre of assurance that you will live through this, and this, and even this, because you have strength seeping into your pores from people that see your imminent transformation and cheer on the liberty of your personally glorious splendour. They are holding your cocoon stable. All you need to do is climb in and coax your tender thing to grow into the fullness of its resplendent beauty.