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Illustration by Drew Shannon

As my daughter and I stood across the counter from Inkwitch Lisa, I tried to look like I fit in, whatever that meant. We were explaining that these tattoos would be the first for both of us.

I was nervous, a grown-up nerd not only afraid of the pain, but also worried that Lisa would intuit my inherent uncoolness and deny me this big, permanent step – one that I had come to realize was akin to taking vows with my nearly 20-year-old first-born.

When Alevia first suggested that we get tattoos together, she was about 15 years old. I balked at the idea. Me? With a tattoo? No way.

Even when I was in high school, I couldn’t imagine having fixed images or words on my body for the rest of my life: I’m restless, my opinions change. What could possibly feel exactly right for decades? Nothing, I was sure.

Alevia was persistent, though. I strongly suspected that at least part of her motivation was to convince me that she should have a tattoo – with or without me. As she made her case, though, I gradually realized that her motivation didn’t matter. That her youth, with its lack of foresight, didn’t matter. In her naivety, I saw a deep wisdom: With Alevia’s high school graduation and leave-taking on the horizon, the idea of having a visible commitment to her felt right, the intimacy as physical as feeling her prenascent kicks.

I decided I was in.

Lisa took her time with us as we chose images, sizes and locations. We left transformed – Alevia with the word “ladybug” written in my handwriting on her left arm, me with a ladybug resting on a leaf on my right wrist.

Meanwhile, my son was agitating for his own tattoos, but officially, Glenn had to wait until he was 18. Then someone, none of us agrees on who, started lobbying for a family tattoo. I groaned a little inside. Two tattoos? How unlike myself could I get?

As I let the idea sink in, the inky contagion spread: My husband and Glenn decided to get a father-son tattoo, and months later Glenn said that he wanted a tattoo not just with my husband Jay, but also one with Alevia, and one with me. A symbol for every primary family bond.

But the next step, as 2021 ended, was getting that family tattoo together: the word “Delft” as it’s drawn on the bottom of Royal Delft pottery, an homage to the nearly seven years we lived there.

Glenn went first. Rivulets of sweat trickled down his torso as a petite, muscular artist etched blue ink into his ribs. When it was my turn, I understood why: I balled my hands into tight fists as knife-sharp strokes dug into my left shoulder blade.

Last fall, when Glenn and I got elephants – a mom on his bicep, a baby on my shoulder – it hurt much less. I wondered why. Was it the lack of bone just under the needle?

Or was I getting used to the cuts that bind?

Alevia and Glenn are out in the world now, building their own lives. I’m surprised and touched that some of our first acts as a family of adults have been getting tattoos. Since Lisa drew my ladybug, I’ve wondered who I would make this physical commitment for, for whom I would endure this pain? Whose love I would want so visible? Not many, but certainly these three people I lived with and grew with for so many years, and whose love sustains me.

Now, I carry my clan with me wherever I go. Whether we’re on good terms, on the outs, near or far, as our relationships evolve, and as we age and change – we are inextricably inked.

Heather Beasley Doyle lives in Arlington, Mass.

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