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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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If I was to make a list of things I wished to do in my ”mature years,” getting a tattoo probably wouldn’t even enter my mind.

I am a retired librarian, in good health, happily married for more than 50 years. I have been a member of the same book club for more than 20 years, I volunteer at charities and enjoy nurturing 14 pots of flowers on our condo balcony. My husband and I have three beloved children and six dear grandchildren, ranging in age from 9 to 23. I would often tell the grandchildren that while I created a safe and loving but disciplined environment for our children, my husband did the playful fun stuff. Most people would describe me with such boring adjectives as well-organized, hard-working, dependable and trustworthy.

So why did I choose to do something so out of character? The idea of “getting inked” came from Meghan, my 19-year-old granddaughter, during a family gathering. As a glass or wine or two was part of the occasion, it seems I have no memory of the discussion.

A week or two later, however, Meghan asked when she, her mom and I were going to the tattoo studio. It took a bit of convincing, but somehow the idea she kept proposing of the three of us doing this together persuaded me to say yes, despite my husband questioning my sanity. And once I agreed to get a tattoo, my somewhat astonished daughter Alicia said yes, too.

Meghan offered to scout out the preliminaries at a tattoo studio she had previously used for two other skin adornments. I wanted something small, maybe the size of a loonie or not much bigger, and suggested a Celtic knot as an appropriate design, indicative of our common Irish ancestry.

When we arrived at the studio, however, and were shown the image Meghan had selected for the three of us, I was surprised to see it was more of a triform, similar to an abstract of Ontario’s trillium or the image used in Christian liturgy as a sign for the Trinity. When I mentioned that last bit, it just about made my agnostic daughter turn tail, but then Meghan saved the day by saying that, for her, the image stood for our three generations. It was hard to argue against that sentiment, especially when one of the tattoo artists pointed out that it was almost impossible to do the intricacy of a Celtic knot in the small size of the image we had requested. So, a triform it was to be!

It didn’t take me long to decide my upper left arm was the best spot for it, mainly because almost no one will see it except when I go swimming. (Unless one has had the determination of a Michelle Obama, and regularly has done push-ups and practised exercises with barbells, one’s upper arms after the age of, say 65, cease to be a thing of beauty. And my favourite type of exertion is to take a walk.)

The three of us sat on a bench as we waited and I had a chance to look around. I hesitated about my decision as I gazed at the garish images that adorned the walls of the studio, as well as all the visible skin of the young men who worked there. I also noticed, however, that these men were impeccably clean, as was their studio – even the window sills nearby, which hosted a collection of cacti, making me think of the needles about to come.

Alicia went first. She lay on the table as the triform was driven into her arm in about 15 minutes. The worst part of it was the sound of the needle, which made me think of a dentist’s office. I went next and lay down, breathing deeply – in and out – while the work proceeded. I would like to report that I thought equally deeply about life and love and links between generations during this time, but must confess that I just tried to block out both the sound of the needle and the little voice in my head telling me I was insane to do this. When the young man finished, he asked me if it hurt too much. I took a deep breath and couldn’t resist telling him that any woman who had given birth to full-term twins without anesthetic (weighing in at 6 pounds, 3 ounces and 7 pounds, 10 ounces) had a standard of pain which he couldn’t fathom.

Soon enough, all three of us were finished, complete with our tattoos covered in a sheet of see-through plastic to protect it for the first five days. Each of us were given written instructions describing appropriate aftercare, and told to be in touch if we had any questions. I couldn’t help chuckling at the line which told one to be sure to wear fresh clothes every day for two to three weeks. I had suspected that I was not a typical client at the tattoo studio, but this clinched the deal. As a woman who even irons her freshly washed sheets and pillowcases weekly (and dons clean garments daily), I did not need the reminder.

Before we left the studio, we asked one of the staff to take our picture – three women proudly bearing their arms to display their newly embedded trifold. My dear husband chose to share this photo with the world via Facebook. Knowing me as they did, the reactions of our friends and relatives ranged from pleasantly surprised to positively shocked.

Now, each morning I inspect my upper arm, adorned with the outline of a triform. I suffered no complications from the tattoo other than a tenderness, which was caused more, I think, from the protective plastic worn for five days than the needle. The tenderness in my heart, however, is permanent as I think back to three generations of women, one blond, one with reddish-gold hair and one decidedly grey, sitting on a bench awaiting their turn for the artist’s rendition of a symbol I am starting to appreciate – although never needed – to remind me of how fortunate I am.

Margaret Hendley lives in Waterloo, Ont.

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