About six years ago, I was visiting patients in a senior facility in Sacramento, Calif., when I asked a 90-some-year-old woman in a wheelchair to tell me about the heart crudely tattooed on her hand.
She responded by quickly withdrawing her hand beneath her lap blanket. My curiosity obviously brought her some shame, so I apologized.
“That’s OK,” she said. “It happened a long time ago.”
When I gave her permission to keep her secret, paradoxically, she told it. I only repeat it now because she has since died.
Her story began in the rural farming system that replaced slavery with something called sharecropping. It was a thinly disguised form of slavery in which the landowner often demanded an exorbitant share of his tenant’s crop. At least this is the way my Yankee fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pinkston, explained it to us.
The elderly woman recalled for me the story of her life in a large rural area that kept her separated from the possibility of friends, except one, another 12-year-old.
The girls spent every possible moment together. They helped each other with chores, and walked to school and church together. They were the best of friends in the worst of times.
The other girl fancied herself an artist and used anything available to draw on whatever medium was accessible. One day, she brought some ink into the barn where the two often played. I assume it was India ink, permanent ink widely used for writing and printing in those days.
With the ink, they mutually outlined dime-sized hearts on their hands to symbolize their love for each other. Then, the friend got the idea of injecting the ink into the skin with a sewing needle. It was quite a thing to do, given the infection rate of a farming environment, yet they were proud of their new tattoos.
But their pride would be short-lived. When my new friend arrived home for dinner, her mom instantly noticed the tattoo. You think moms get upset about tattoos now? Not so much compared to how a mother in the 1930s would have reacted to a tattoo on her daughter’s hand. Her mom considered it obscene.
She took her daughter’s hand and scrubbed it with lye soap and a horse brush.
“Obviously, the cleansing had little effect,” I said.
The woman nodded and rubbed the tattoo as if still trying to erase the shame.
“My mother whipped me good with that brush,” she said matter-of-factly. “I was never allowed to play with her again.”
“Never?” I asked incredulously. “Didn’t you sneak in some playtime on the schoolyard or at church potlucks?”
“No,” she said adding that her mom’s word was law and you never went against it.
I’ve done a lot of counseling inside hospitals, and I know when someone is grieving a loss, and after 75 years, the woman still was grieving this loss. In her heart, she could return to that barn and still feel the shame of her mother’s judgment.
The connections between best friends can be a tenuous one. I know because I’ve watched my best friend go into treatment twice for cancer. Next week, he returns for his annual MRI to make sure that his cancer still is in remission.
While we’ve never gotten a tattoo together, we have a connection that can’t be erased and I covet your prayers for him today.