My mom is a straight-laced and unimpulsive woman. She votes early in every election, makes grocery lists of seasonal health foods three months in advance of family vacations and goes to church every Sunday. I have never seen anyone stick to a workout regimen and diet more strictly than her: I don’t think she’s had sugar since her wedding day. She never, ever curses. This is not for a lack of things to rebel against. A child of the ‘60s, she was born to a conservative, middle-class WASP family, and while other kids were smoking pot and joining the Peace Corps she was practicing the violin and getting a Ph.D. When she was 25 and had been married for two years, her mother forbade her from getting a second ear piercing.
Perhaps this is why my mom has always wanted me to rebel. “You know, Charlie, if you ever got a girl pregnant and decided to keep the baby, that would be very OK with me,” she told me when I was 13 and blissfully ignorant about the logistics of human reproduction. “I mean, I would raise that child. We’d get to name it, and we’d bring out all your old baby clothes, and the crib is still in the attic and you could go to college while I raised the baby and oh wouldn’t that be fun?!” A teenage pregnancy, in her eyes, was more than just a mistake that she — the cool mom — could take in stride. It was an antidote to a life of good choices and few mistakes.
When I was 15 she asked me and my friend Ben, somewhat accusingly, why we never took her car for a joyride while she was gone. Ben turned to me with wide eyes after she left. “Dude,” he breathed, “I think your mom wants us to steal her car?” I suspect she was keeping track of the mileage on her Volvo, in the hopes of discovering that we’d taken it without her knowing. At 18, after a back injury left me with chronic pain, she got me a medical marijuana card. “This way if you ever want any pot you can just go and get it legally,” she told me. “Apparently it’s much higher quality, anyways, whatever that means.”
I’ve always thought that part of why I never actually rebelled is that my mom took all the fun out of it. Where’s the fun in raiding the liquor cabinet if someone’s already left it ajar for you? What kid wants a note from his pediatrician saying he can smoke weed? I never once had to buy condoms as a teenager, because the day after my 16th birthday a box of 64 Trojan “For Her Pleasure” condoms appeared in my sock drawer. Gross, mom.
This past summer my parents moved for the first time in my life. Figuring they weren’t yet old enough for Florida, they bought a cottage on the coast of Maine, on a tiny peninsula where my dad’s parents used to live. There, my dad could fish, my mom could read and hike and they could finally have some peace and quiet after 30 years in downtown Philadelphia. On their first night in the new house, my 16-year-old sister texted the family group chat: “our parents are officially boring <3.”
It didn’t take long for my mom to get antsy. She called me and my siblings every day to kill time. “You know what I miss sometimes?” she told me. “Traffic.” She started driving into Portland — “The hippest, youngest city on the Eastern Seaboard,” according to Portland Magazine — to go to yoga classes. She dragged my dad along to tour microbreweries. They went to a warehouse party once. Suddenly my parents were cool, kind of. Looking back, I realize what a life-altering experience this move was for my mom. I know this now because of what happened next.
One morning in late August, just before I returned to college for my junior year, I came downstairs to find her sitting nervously at the kitchen counter. (I can tell when my mom is sitting nervously, because she’s my mom.)
“Morning, Char,” she said. “Sleep well?” She rubbed her eyes with her palms for a couple seconds, which she never does.
“What’s up, Mom?” I asked, pouring coffee.
“Oh, nothing, nothing, just, you know, lots to do, lots to do…”
I pushed myself up onto the granite countertop and wiggled my eyebrows at her.
She pretended to read the newspaper for a few moments. My mother does not pretend to do anything.
“Hey,” she said, not looking up. “Have you ever thought maybe you would, like, join the CIA or something?”
I set down my coffee.
“OK Mom, clearly something is up.”
“No, no! I guess, I mean, what I’m wondering is—”
“Out with it, Mom—”
“Would you want to, like, get a tattoo?”
A man named Steven at Skull and Crossbones Tattoo Parlor in Portland booked us a last-minute appointment for that afternoon. “He sounded very friendly, very … clean cut,” my mom decides as we pull into the parking lot. Steven, we immediately learn, is not clean cut. Every inch of his skin is covered in ink, including the backside of his shaved head, on which he has inscribed FUCK THE ESTABLISHMENT in gothic script. Whoever did the tattoo apparently didn’t realize how long the word “establishment” is when they started, because the word starts in the center of his skull and winds all the way around to his right ear, with the letters getting progressively smaller as they go on. (As he explains the tattoo process to us, I wonder if it was originally supposed to be a shorter word and he changed his mind halfway through: FUCK THE ESTUARIES? FUCK THE ESTATE TAX?) The parlor itself is grimier than I imagined it would be. The patrons look at us like we’ve come to shut the place down. “You guys siblings?” asks Steven, to which my mom turns bright pink and shakes her head.
Half an hour later, my mom is curled up in the chair, her pant leg rolled up to her knee. Steven bends over her, with a needle that looks like something from Star Wars in hand. “Ready?” he asks my mom. She nods and slides her hand into mine. She is very ready; she’s given birth three times, she explains to Steven, and she’s been practicing Buddhist breathing techniques. “Pain is nothing to me,” she tells us serenely.
A minute later I learn otherwise. “Fuck, oh shit shit jiminy FUCKING crickets, oh fucking knobface shitbag that REALLY DOES HURT!” Apparently, these are the words my mom uses when she’s in pain. She won’t believe me after, when she claims to have handled it “like a total trooper” and I tell her she absolutely did not. I took a video of it, though. One day, when she is very old and dignified, I’ll show it to her and ask what a “knobface” is.
When we get home, we take off our bandages and compare tattoos. Mine is a delicate bundle of flowers (“very feminine, bro” my brother says) and hers is a fern. My whole family decides that hers is undeniably a better tattoo. Even my dad, who has been quietly bemused by the whole escapade, thinks it’s beautiful. My mom beams. “You know, ferns are the oldest, most resilient plants in the world,” she tells us. “You could do anything to them and they’d still find a way to grow. That’s why I got it.”
“You know I have to get another tattoo now, right mom?”
My mother and I are sitting in a cafe in New Haven, waiting for her mother — my grandmother — to arrive. She looks surprised.
“Because it’s supposed to be like a crazy thing to do, where you do it without your parents knowing and it’s fun and impulsive and stuff.”
“But wasn’t ours fun and impulsive and stuff?”
“I mean, yes, but you’re my mom!”
My grandmother walks into the cafe. I’ve always found it a little upsetting how much she looks like my mom: short blonde hair, bright green eyes, leathery German skin. I know exactly how my mom will look in 20 years if she starts wearing pearl necklaces and beige turtlenecks.
We all hug and order coffee. My grandmother has crinkly grandma eyes. She asks me about my summer, and I start filling her in on all my adventures. I feel my mom’s foot pressing on top of mine under the table.
“What do you think, should we tell her what else we did this summer?” she asks. smiling a huge, nervous, elementary school photo smile. Her face is bright red.
“What, uh, what else did we do this summer?” I say. I feel very young and guilty. I feel like my best friend and I have just been caught doing something very bad, and we are about to get in big trouble.
“Oh, come on. Screw it, let’s tell her!” (I am 100% percent sure this is the first time my mother has ever uttered the words “Screw it.”) She’s smiling even bigger now. Too many teeth. She’s positively giddy. My grandmother no longer has her kind grandma eyes; she’s a mother again, her eyes two slits, and we are her naughty children.
“What did you do, Eliza?” she says quietly.
Slowly, my mom pulls up the cuff of her jeans to reveal the fern. It runs from her ankle up to her knee, in black ink.
“Jesus Christ,” my grandmother whispers. “Is that … permanent?”
My mom nods, her eyes wide.
“How … how did this happen?” my grandmother manages to say. Unsure of how literally to take this question, I pull up my shirt to reveal my bouquet: lavender, redcurrant, rose.
“Jesus H. Christ!” she cries. She sinks back in her chair and sits in silence, her eyes darting back and forth between my mom and me. “Your father would have been furious, my dear,” she finally says calmly. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go compose myself in the ladies’ room.” She gets up to leave. “This is quite a shock you’ve given me, I’ll have you know.”
My mom and I remain frozen in silence as she crosses the room. Our eyes meet and we explode in giggles. We pulled it off. The rebellion was successful, the tyrant overthrown.
“Oh my god, Charlie,” she says, making excited little jazz hands. “I can’t believe we did that! What a fucking rush!”