Go grab a cup of coffee, this will be lengthy.
Today I got a tattoo.
BUT the real story starts twelve years ago, when I got my first tattoo. It’s the Chinese symbol for dragon, the year in which I was born. It’s above my right ankle. As I told my friends Liz & Sam, I got this when I was in my first year of graduate school at JMU, and the tattoo artist was this huge burly guy who in a gruff voice asked me, “Would you like a teddy bear to hold on to?” I nodded yes.
I called my mom after I got this tattoo. “Mom! I got a tattoo today!”
Immediately and without hesitation she replied, “Your grandmother is crying now.” ha! And then, a few months later for Christmas, my gift from my grandmother was a flannel set of pajamas, adorned with the dragon symbol.
My grandmother meant the world to me. Sometimes she drove me crazy, but in retrospect, I think it’s because I am a lot like her emotionally – stern and gruff and no nonsense, with incredibly high expectations for friends, family, and loved ones. As a kid growing up, being raised by my mom and grandma, I used to refer to them both as parents. At least thirty years of smoking left her voice deep and raspy (she decided one day to quit and never puffed again) so my joke to my friends is that my grandmother was the meanest old man I knew.
She was incredibly devoted to her family, despite the trying circumstances of their arrival in the United States. When my mom and her two brothers were in their teens, my grandmother and grandfather sent the three of them first to Tripoli, Libya; and then to Connecticut here in the US to go to school, learn English, and get a good education, different than what they could have gotten in Taiwan. They were in a boarding school in Tripoli, and then lived with a host family in Connecticut, while my grandmother tended to her dying husband in Taiwan. After he passed away, she joined her children in Connecticut.
She was a nurse by training, but when she came to the States, because of licensing issues, was unable to perform tasks as a full nurse, so ended up finding work as a nursing assistant. I remember a story my grandmother told me about when I was really young – probably a little younger than Lindsey is now. Grandma worked in a factory in New York, fastening buttons on clothing for pennies a button, in a sweatshop in Manhattan. My mom worked full time, and I was at daycare. She came to pick me up one day and found me in a closet, because I’d refused to eat from the same dishes the (nasty!) teachers were feeding the other kids from. She was horrified, and decided right then and there to quit her job and stay home with me.
Grandma was a fabulous seamstress and knitter. She could churn out a complicated sweater in two days, all while sitting on the sofa, watching The Price is Right and Guiding Light, and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth with an ash an inch long. She devoted her life to caring for her family when needed – living at some point with each of her children’s families. Chinese New Year was a massive feast of love – the way to a Chinese grandmother’s heart is through the satisfied sighs of her children and grandchildren. One of the first Chinese New Year celebrations Josh spent with our family, he ate so much he had trouble bending over. That, plus the love Josh had of anything my grandmother made and his ease at using chopsticks caused her at one point to tell us that she thought Josh was more Chinese than I was.
The greatest compliment she ever paid me was to tell me, not too long after Matthew was born, that she thought I was a really good mother. She thought the world of Matthew, and even before we knew whether or not Matthew was a boy or a girl, she fought through the swollen knuckles of her arthritis and knit up a storm of clothes for him – including a poncho we’ve now passed along to Lindsey (although in this climate she may never be able to wear it).
When Matthew was about a year and a half old, we found out she had colon cancer. She declined chemotherapy treatment, and soon afterward moved into a nursing home for the rest of her days. I brought Matthew to visit one last time.
On April 26, 2008, my grandmother died in that nursing home. No pain, she had fallen asleep and didn’t wake up again. Two days prior to this, I told my mother I was pregnant. My mother told Grandma the day after, and the last thing she said before she fell asleep that last time was something to the effect of one life coming in as one life goes out.
I miss her a lot. I miss her gruff voice, her love and concern, her food, how much she loved watching animals on the Animal Planet, how she could never watch ice skating because it made her too nervous. I miss hearing her call her younger sister, I miss hearing her talk to me in half English and half Chinese. She used to call me “Casey-o!” and always looked forward to my visits home.
I miss her. A lot.
Anyway, the tattoo – the other day I was looking through my flickr stream and came across the back of the second picture I posted above. My grandmother had written the names down of all of the people in the photograph in Chinese. Her name looks different than my mom and uncles, because she kept her Chinese name – Chou Yueh Hua – while adopting my grandfather’s surname – Yu – in the US.
I saw this and knew immediately that this is what I wanted for a tattoo. When I was 18, I changed my surname to Yu. This is my way of remembering who I am, the history of my name, my family, my culture, and my identity, and commemorating the woman who meant and means the world to me. I cropped out one of the characters and cleaned it up. Then, on a Facebook group run by a pretty fantabulous Photoshop guru, I asked what the best way to enlarge this picture. Rachel suggested using Illustrator to draw it using vectors, and forwarded the image onto a friend of hers who is a graphic designer. He sent back the second version.
I went to Euphoria Tattoos here in Tallahassee, after seeing the wonderful work Alain did for a friend of mine.
(side note – the construction on Gaines? Awful.)
I asked Liz and Sam to come along to photograph the event – so Sam snapped pictures, and Liz chatted with me. I’ll post Sam’s pictures here later. Alain was great. The tattoo itself was only a little painful at times but already I am fantasizing about my next piece! It felt like someone scratching you very hard, and honestly, childbirth was 1000 times worse, so this felt like a piece of cake. The anticipation of what to happen was the worst of all – my first tattoo was 12 years earlier, so my memory on what it felt like was mixed.
It’s on the inside of my left arm, and I wanted it there to be close to my heart. Sounds corny, but there you have it. My new tattoo. What should my next one be?