Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ink Fades; Memories Linger


I glanced at the biceps on my left arm to follow the pointing hand of a trainer at my health club.

"Oh, you mean my tattoo?"

"Yeah, what does it say?"

I stretched my neck and pulled my arm closer to read it for him. But as I searched for the words, I made an unhappy discovery. "It's faded," I said. How had I not noticed that before?

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," I said, "it was inked 15 years ago, for my 60th birthday."

"Wow," he said. Was he doing the math to get my current age, or stuck at wondering why a 60-year-old would've considered her first-time tattoo back then?

Our chat inspired me to cut my exercise routine and revisit the occasion of my tattoo. I stretched out on a bench and it all came back:

When that 60th birthday was nearing, friends and loved ones queried: How do you plan to celebrate? Expecting news of a gala party, European trip, or expensive jewelry, they learned instead: “I’m getting a tattoo.”  

 “Are you nuts?” my brother Ron had asked. “When I was in the army, any woman with a tattoo was considered a hooker.”

My husband, Tommy, whom I had wed a mere seven month's earlier, offered a gentler response: “It’s not my arm, but if that’s what you want, go ahead.” Even in that short wedlock, it's likely my spouse realized his wife could be unpredictable and not easily dissuaded.

Daughters’ Faith and Jill -- a musician and writer -- pronounced the plan “terrific.”

The next question was: “Why?” To me, achieving age 60 was a chance to thumb my nose at society, a don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-thinks time to stray from conformity. So there’ll be critics; who cares? After many in my age group have endured the collapse of a long marriage, kids who grow up and leave, and loved ones who die too soon, we get our priorities straight, and a barb tossed our way is harmless.

Deciding on a design was difficult, considering it would be my companion till dust do us part.  Because my marriage was so fresh, I decided not to jinx it with Tommy's name splayed on my arm. I settled on a tattoo with a heart that would contain two banners, each bearing a daughter’s name. And it would be joyful, a tribute to my talented daughters, honoring them for our solid relationship and their own free spirits.

Finding my tattoo artist was easier. From referrals, I settled on Jon. “It must be fun, carnival-like,” I instructed, “with symbols of my daughters’ personalities.” He quickly sketched a chubby heart, musical notes, rays of sun, and roses emanating from all sides. Across the center were two banners: Faith, the eldest, on the upper, Jill, 18 months younger, the lower.

The second appointment produced the finished product on translucent paper: my puffy heart in psychedelic colors of crimson, yellow, turquoise, and emerald with my daughters’ names emblazoned on its front.

After two hours, the tattoo was complete. I stared into the mirror, praying for satisfaction, and saw my badge of courage: a 4-3/4 inch wide by 3-inch high, wildly colored tattoo, with my cherished daughters forever engraved on my arm. 

"Keep it covered until morning," Jon said as he protected it with Saran Wrap™.  

At home that afternoon Tommy was eager to view the results, but I pleaded, “Wait till morning,” preferring to keep my raw portrait protected in its plastic bunting.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Visions of regrets, onlookers’ gasps, and lifelong pain prohibited repose. I prayed for the hours to race by. In the morning, I ran to the bathroom, and was ecstatic to find my gorgeous tattoo intact. It was bright, fun, and, well, tough!

Today, with Tommy gone, but still brighter in my memory than my fading tattoo, I recall his response: "I love it!" he had said. "It's sexy."

Rather than refreshing the ink on my 15-year-old tattoo, as I first considered, I think I'll leave it as is. Somehow, the soft colors seem more appropriate to a widow. But, who knows how I'll feel at 80; perhaps a brand new one?

Note: This essay is part of my new memoir, "Green Nails And Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss," which is to be published September 2014. To join the book's crowd-funding campaign, please click on Elaine Soloway's Kickstarter Campaign. Thanks!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A New Lease

I've raised the horizontal blinds that cover the floor-to-ceiling windows of my convertible studio apartment.  The Chicago River is frozen over, cars on the expressway are slogging in both directions, and the sun is sneaking above the high-rise and loft buildings that complete my view to the north.

A new lease waiting to be approved is on my small Lime Ricky green table. As of April 15, I will have lived here for one year. I settle on a pillow that softens the seat of a wooden chair and start reviewing before I sign on the dotted line.

The view distracts me, so I drop my pen and allow myself to muse over the decision I made just two months after my husband died November 2, 2012.  Elbowing past advice to make no major moves for at least a year, I put our house on the market. And five months later I landed here, in this new apartment and life. Now, as the lease renewal approaches, I decide it's time to review the pros and cons, and changes, which have occurred since that swift transition.

First the pros:

I love my living space. While the views are new, the furnishings are warmly familiar. A dozen paintings that burst our house's walls with color and interest are now hanging in my 612-foot-cocoon. My Kingsbury Plaza maintenance men leveled, nailed, and attached all; one of many tasks they have undertaken with sweet eagerness.

I am typing this essay on a gaunt MacBook Air, which I exchanged for a muscular desktop that would've overwhelmed my Sapphire blue worktable and pint-sized apartment. Instead of the home office I once had, I now work in a snug corner with a built-in bookshelf that holds the few volumes, photographs, mementoes, and supplies I brought with.

I am managing without owning a car. A major change between my former life and current -- other than I'm absent my husband -- is that I no longer own a car. Finances were the primary reason, but also, I can walk to grocery and department stores, am a few blocks from three CTA lines, and can hail taxicabs or use an App for shared rides.

I have boosted my physical and spiritual health.  The East Bank Club is adjacent to my apartment building, so no matter what winter delivered, I've been able to travel underground and work out at least five days a week.

The club has also become my afternoon distraction. At times, my apartment feels claustrophobic, so I return with my laptop to an alternative, people-filled environment. And because, off-and-on, I've been a member for 30 years, I greet many old friends and meet new ones.

I've joined Chicago Sinai Congregation (walking distance) and attend weekly Torah study. Along with filling in the holes of my religious knowledge, membership has brought a sense of community and new friends.

I don't have to worry about home maintenance. When weather forecasters warned homeowners to beware of frozen pipes, icicles dangling from eaves, and sidewalks and driveways needing plowing, I was grateful I was no longer a homeowner.  

And now the cons:

I have made only one friend in my building. In my old Dakin Street neighborhood, I knew nearly every family on my block. I watched kids grow from babies to teens. In my apartment building, which is more like a dorm because of its thirty-something population, I have made only one good friend. She's the age of my daughters, and cares for me and makes me laugh just as my flesh-and-blood do.

I miss owning a dog. Although my building allows pets, and there are many I can coo at, including my friend's bity boy, I pine for a pup. But, the practical me understands I can't afford the extra expense, I'd have a hard time racing to a vet without a car, and potty breaks in a high rise are challenging.

I'm spending too much money.
I think it's a wash between my monthly rent and my former mortgage payment. And, with the absence of car expenses and lower utility bills, it would appear I'm in good financial shape.

But, with the pros I mentioned earlier, like my pricey health club and proximity to grocery shopping (Whole Foods) and department stores (Nordstrom's), I'm finding temptations hard to pass up. Thus, I'm wary every time I face a monthly statement.

Despite the cons I've confessed, I know that if I had stayed put, the traces of Tommy and our Golden Retriever, Buddy, would've trumped all and tinted my mood. I signed the lease. A new year, a new me.