We all had heard about my grandmother’s racecar tattoo. I know I often wondered about it, maybe even whispered of it, and my grandmother was not the kind of person you could just ask about these things. By the time I came along, she presented as this birdlike, reticent person, smiling at us from her chair, often complaining about the cold, with an unimaginable racecar-shaped illustration hidden somewhere under her layers of wool sweaters and blankets. None of us ever set eyes on it until last year, thirty minutes before her funeral would start, someone from Simonson’s Mortuary asked if we wanted to see her one more time before they sealed the coffin. My mother was the only one who said yes, and when the assistant to the funeral director brought her into the side room he told her, “I’ll leave you two alone,” as if speaking to two living, breathing women. “It was her,” my mother told us afterward, “but it wasn’t her anymore,” to explain why she hesitated only a second before lifting the white burial shroud which the chevra kadisha had tied like a loose sack about my grandmother’s little wrists and feet. There it was, the tattoo, but for a long time my mother wouldn’t confirm its exact place on the body. She did describe it as more or less racecar-shaped, like we all had heard, and ever since that day all sorts of theories have emerged in the family. My mother prefers to connect the tattoo to another family legend: my grandmother may have had a foster son called Pinky who they say died as young as fourteen in a street racing accident in Queens, probably hastening the end of my grandmother’s first marriage. All this would have happened in the late nineteen forties shortly before my grandmother remarried and my mother and her sisters were born. But my grandmother rarely or never spoke of this Pinky. One of my aunts claims to have talked to him on the phone once when she was a child, decades ago, and she insists he survived the street racing wreck only to run away from home and reconnect with my grandmother years later. According to this version, my grandmother’s first marriage at age nineteen to a certain Lithuanian named Osip ended for reasons unrelated. As if all this was not thorny enough, my own sister, following a small contingent of our cousins, takes issue with the unspoken sexism in the tattoo story: that a racecar could only symbolize the one boy of the family, and that only the loss of the one boy would merit this secret lifelong grief from our grandmother (i.e. she’d get a tattoo for Pinky but not, for example, for her daughter Naomi who died of cancer). Personally, I keep a more skeptical tack on all this, but I don’t expect my family to listen, and it’s always a shock when someone outside the family cares either way. My mother confirmed the tattoo, and I have no real reason to doubt her. Why would she make it up? Even in my grandmother’s lifetime, the tattoo rumor may have originated with my mother herself, so she is our best or only source for it. But, whether she can say for a fact it was supposed to be a racecar, who knows. Assuming the profile view my mother sketched for us – two racing tires, two windows, a hood, some sort of a roof – rotated ninety degrees we could take the same shape for the first letter of my grandmother’s name (Bess), or for my grandfather’s (Benny). Flipped one hundred and eighty degrees it becomes a heart, or an infinity sign, and on and on like this, in endless Rorschach inkblot variations. From here I’m inclined to push a more basic question: was it in fact a tattoo and not some kind of a birthmark, a liver spot? Today tattoos can mean anything and nothing, but for a woman of my grandmother’s generation a mark on the skin screamed only prostitute or Auschwitz survivor, two things my grandmother wasn’t. If to a certain degree I’ve accepted my mother’s and aunt’s versions, and I finally agreed to go with them – yes, we all got the same tattoo, in the same spot, from a family friend who does tattoos – then I can’t justify it except to say it’s only to know, to know once and for all– maybe not what the tattoo meant to my grandmother, but to find out what a racecar tattoo could mean to me, or to anyone. We all laughed and cried so hard that day, to see all of us with that little racecar blob. I know it made me think a lot about my grandmother, and about other things harder to put into words. And if the original wasn’t a racecar– and if it never was a tattoo!– then let my own daughters, if I ever have daughters, puzzle over mine. But, look: the whole time we’ve been talking, one of the hummingbirds that lives in the hedge at the back door has sat perched, wiping clean its little beak on the sill of the window, and now it’s gone.




Photo used under CC