On family and favorites

My sister and I were describing to our mother the tattoos we’re planning to get next weekend: our grandfathers’ initials in their handwriting.

My sister already has two tattoos.  She got her first, a lotus, in 2006.  She has a distinct memory of visiting me in the hospital (another story) when I couldn’t move and could barely speak and when she came to see how I was feeling, I rasped, “Turn around – I want to see your tattoo.”

This will be my first.  I have had many ideas over the years but I didn’t know where to start.  Then we had this idea and it just fit.  It took us months to get handwriting samples for both our grandfathers from relatives in India.  When we finally had both samples, I used them to make a simple design and sent it to my sister.  She approved but felt we needed to consult with the tattoo artist to find a way to frame them.

And just last week I had a brilliant and possibly blasphemous idea: separate the stacked initials with three lines like the vibhuti.  We are Shaivite Brahmins, so this a hugely important emblem to our family, even if my sister and I have no personal tie to it.

My sister has always been my paternal grandfather’s favorite (my mother denies this but is utterly wrong): she is the eldest child of his eldest child, and she also spent her infant years in India with him so he witnessed her first words, which were in Tamil (she only learned English when she came back to the US).  Though he was doting and playful with all of us, I know without bitterness that I never stood a chance.

My maternal grandfather was a more reserved and somewhat dour man than my paternal grandfather (I have a theory that this is partially due to his having four daughters to marry off and therefore four dowries to provide).  My mother assured us that though he loved us, he didn’t know how to engage with children, either when she and her sisters were young or when we were.  So my mother also claimed that he didn’t have any favorites.

My sister plans to get her tattoo with our paternal grandfather’s initials on top while I’ll have our maternal grandfather’s first.  She agrees with me that I was closer with him than she was as I began an e-mail correspondence with him in 2007 that continued until his death in 2009, something she wishes she had done. He and I mainly discussed books we were reading, something we couldn’t do when I was younger (not that I don’t still read YA).  My sister and I got the reading bug from both sides of our family; my grandfather was excited to finally be able to engage with us on something that interested him.

So we were describing this idea to our mother about the initials and the vibhuti and also that we were going to arrange them in different ways so one grandfather doesn’t have universal prominence over the other.  I initially dismissed a shimmer in her eyes to the glinting of her cataracts.  But a few moments later, there was an unmistakable chin quiver and suddenly my sister and I worried that the tattoo talk had upset mom and she did not approve.  She managed to choke out that she hadn’t known that her father and I even had a relationship beyond a few phone calls each year and visits every few years.  She is coming with me and my sister next weekend when we get our tattoos.


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