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The Tattoo Lady, Mother And Me

03/19/2015 07:17 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

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I've come back to Santa Fe from my home in Los Angeles because Mother is ill with throat cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. All her teeth have been removed and her dentures look ridiculous, but I tell her she looks the same. She seems to believe me. She can't wear the bottom plates, and so every meal is a challenge. She's losing weight and has already lost her hair. But she's full of stories. I get the usual Tattoo Lady updates.

"You know how fat Humpty Dumpty was?" she asks. "Well, Tattoo Lady is fatter than that."

The Tattoo Lady, her dead husband, her incarcerated son, her other recently released son, and her truant grandchildren provide Mom with stories to rival any soap opera. I imagine Tattoo Lady with tattoos all up and down her arms, across her chest, encircling a vast abdomen, and traveling down her dimpled backside.

"And she never takes a bath," Mom says. I glance down at my mother's dirt encrusted fingernails.

I'd tried to get her in for a manicure that morning, but she'd refused, stamping her foot in the salon and making a scene. "It's too much money," she said. The Vietnamese manicurist stood by patiently, the lower half of her face covered with a hygienic paper mask. "I like your mask," Mother said. "Can I have one?" I forced a smile, and guided Mom from the shop. Before we made it out, she spotted a quarter and swooped down on it. "And they say I can't see good." She pocketed the money. I heard a groan behind us, but didn't look back.

I drive Mom home, to the adobe structure she'd built with dime and quarter tips and the child support check from my father. She lives with six or eight small, unruly dogs, four or six ungrateful cats, and one immortal finch. Then there are the feral cats that Mom calls her "homies."

She's kind of a cat lady, but any non-housebroken pet can fill her need. She's had monkeys, ferrets, white rats, and sugar bats. I'm considered the animal hater in my New Mexico family, even though I have one dog, two cats, two hamsters and a snake.

"I've lost my sense of smell," Mom says, excusing the mess. She resents my unwillingness to stay with her, and she refuses to understand why she doesn't get many visitors. It wasn't that bad when I was growing up. In those days, I cleaned the cat box and the dogs went outside to do their business. Her habits degenerated over time, but the potential for allowing the animals to take over was there long before.

Mom trusts animals more than people.

Her house is not set up to be inviting to guests, so we eat out everyday. We breakfast, lunch and dinner together. She doesn't drive anymore, so I try to take her to the places that she can't reach easily.

"Did you see that TV movie on Martha Stewart last night?" I ask over dinner.

"I can't stand that woman," Mom says. "Do you like her?" She fixes me with a challenging look, but I recognize it only in retrospect, and stumble into the trap.

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"She's all right. I don't try all that stuff she demonstrates, but it's oddly relaxing-"

"I hate her," Mom says.

I laugh, and again I miss the warning. "She's amazing--"

"Tattoo Lady likes her, too." Mother presses her lips together, and gives me that look again. "Watches her all the time."

I stop mid sip of my gin and tonic, and laugh, trying not to spit it across the table at her. The thought of Tattoo Lady, fatter and sloppier than Humpty Dumpty after he fell from the wall, sitting engrossed and happy as can be watching the pristine Martha Stewart is even too much for Mother. She laughs with me.

"She does," Mom says. "Loves her and everything she does. Just like you."

The next day, I take Mother to collect commodities -- surplus food for seniors. She doesn't need them, doesn't even like most of it, but it's free and that's reason enough. "I pay my taxes," she says.

Mom plans to pick up commodities for her friend, Ellen Romero. We swing by the Senior Citizen's Center where 84-year old Ellen is the receptionist. Mom had volunteered here, as well, before she got sick. Ellen has her authorization papers ready. I get introduced all around. All the old people want to hug me. Mom goes from table to table chatting up her friends. She looks light on her feet, and full of fun and life, just like she did when she worked her tables, waitress light years ago. Her friends had been her fellow workers in those days, and they still are. The Center is where Mom first met the notorious Tattoo Lady.

We discover that Mom needs to be re-certified by Social Security before she can get her commodities. There are about 100 people waiting to be called, but Mom charges to the front of the line, saying that she has to go to chemotherapy in two hours. She shows them the pack she wears. Inside is a bag of chemicals attached by a silicone tube to a port in her chest, where the doctors have placed a special pump leading right to her heart. The workers are unimpressed: rules are rules.

There are two windows occupied at the Social Security department, two miles away. An elderly couple is waiting, and a machine dispensing numbers is prominently displayed. Mom is number 92. One client is just leaving and Mom beelines for the open window. The lady explains that she must go by the rules, looks at her number, and calls 91. The elderly couple sit in a corner clutching their number. The lady calls 91 again, and they consult their slip of paper, adjusting their eyeglasses and discussing with each other if they are actually seeing the same number "91." Meanwhile, Mom has continued to badger the lady in the window with her questions, so she finally relents and processes her request. As she hands the authorization to Mom, the couple holds up their paper. "91," they call out.

We head back to the commodities place. It's a big, metallic warehouse sitting on an unpaved mound of earth. People park willy nilly, ignoring the blue handicapped parking spaces that have chaparral growing in them, almost obscuring the signs. This is very different from Los Angeles where handicapped spaces are cherished and people fake limps in order to park in them.

Mom walks in brandishing her papers. We're told we'll have to wait until all the other people are attended to. This does not please Mother, and she launches into her chemo tirade, telling the woman in charge, the only one carrying an official clipboard, that she's got a chemo appointment in half-an-hour, that the treatment is killing her, and that she's lost all her teeth and her hair is falling out. She pulls off her wig. This time it works.

"I'll get you in front, Nellie," the clipboard lady says, and dashes off. She pulls out a chair in front for Mom to be seated. Mom takes the chair until the clipboard lady turns her back, and then she gets up to talk with friends she's spotted. Commodities are not just about food.

We get processed and return to the car. Mom wants to flirt with the guys who load the boxes, so I drive the car around. "They're really nice here," she says. "But I won't let them push me around just because I'm old."

We go directly to the cancer clinic where Mom really does have an appointment to have more chemicals dumped into her. I buy her soup and juice and a brownie to nosh on while she's attached to the drip. She'll be hooked up for three hours.

The plaza is only a few blocks away and I stroll into a few galleries before entering a mercantile.

"I hate to spend money, but you should see that Tattoo Lady go though dough," Mother had told me earlier. I hide my purchases in the trunk of the car.

She's still hooked up when I return. "I wet my pants," she says. "I was almost to the bathroom and just couldn't hold it anymore."

"Are you cold?" I ask. The nurse brings her a blanket, and says she's going to be going to the bathroom a lot.

At dinner that night, my last night, we dine at Mom's favorite place, the Red Lobster. We're concerned that she won't be able to chew the lobster, but order it anyway. I start her off with clam chowder and order extra for her to take home.

The next morning she's got a dental appointment. I call and ask her to wear the pants I bought her, not so much because I want to see her in them, as that I'm worried she'll still be wearing her peed-in jeans.

"Mom, try to clean your fingernails 'cause you're going to be pointing to your dentures and your gums."

"Okay," she says, and sniffs, offended to her core.

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It's my last day with Mom, and I'm a bit teary when she comes out and gets in the car. She gives me a startled look, and turns away with that tight curl-of-the-lip.

"Tattoo Lady cries a lot," she says.

She's wearing the new outfit, but her fingernails are still black. She's carrying a box with her dentures, her partial bridge (from when she still had most of her teeth), and a small container holding all the teeth they pulled. At the dentist's office, she picks up one of her former teeth and holds it out to him.

"See how small my teeth were," she says. "I never had a cavity." She opens the container holding her dentures. They float in water and she pokes at them. "These are just too big. They hurt me." We all stare down at the dentures. A piece of black crud comes loose from her nail and floats in the denture water. The dentist labors over her false teeth, trimming and refitting. Mom leaves happy, her choppers liberally lined with an analgesic.

"Are you hungry?" I ask, pleased that she'll finally be able to chew. Things have been going great. Mom orders sausage and bacon with her eggs and pancakes. We smile across the table at each other. Then, she brings up The Dog.

"What was that dog's name? You know, the one you killed?"

Once, when my sons were little and Mom and I were talking long distance, I put her on the speakerphone so we could all hear. In tones reminiscent of a bedtime story she launched into a story of The Dog, a pet they didn't even remember, with me featured as the cruel dog-murdering queen. I'll never forget their innocent eyes sweeping up to me for confirmation.

"I didn't kill the dog, Mom. I had her put down. Remember? She had cancer and the runs, and Eric was starting to walk, and he'd step into dog shit all the time?"

Silence. I could hear her sucking on a cigarette on the other end of the telephone line, arming herself with the heat of the smoke in her lungs. She exhaled, biting her words. "Yeah, I'm glad you killed her. She might have suffered." This is not agreement. This is Mother making her point in that reverse logic bordering on evil way she's perfected. I glanced at the boys -- the word killed shining in their eyes.

"Euthanized, Mom. Not killed. Would you rather your grandson play in dog shit?"

"Dog shit never hurt anybody," she said. The boys giggled, covering their little mouths with little hands, totally in agreement with Grandma on the dog shit issue. My oldest is 20 now, and he likes to tease me by asking if I miss my dog killing days.

The dog shit episode has become a fond Grandma tale for them. Grandma as the wolf in disguise. But does that make me Little Red Riding Hood, still trying to please with my little basket of goodies?

Over 15 years have passed, and she still brings up The Dog. "What was that dog's name?" she asks again. Another trap that I fail to see. I could have just changed the subject, started talking about the dog I have now or her dogs or pointed at the man walking past the coffee shop window.

"Sallie," I say.

"That dog was so smart. She followed Eric everywhere. I still don't understand why you had her killed." She bites into a piece of bacon with her startling white dentures, and chews meditatively.

It's my last day in Santa Fe. My last morning with my mother. Things have been going well. I've agreed with her on everything except Martha Stewart. I decide to make a little speech, the kind that allows rational people to save face.

"I think I made the right decision, Mom. The dog was very sick. The comfort and well being of my family meant more to me than the dog. For you, animals are more important than people, and you don't mind the problems. Your way works for you, my way works for me. It doesn't mean that you're right and I'm wrong. It's just a different way."

She sips her coffee. Curls her lip. "Yeah, Tattoo Lady says the same thing."

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