I have a tattoo on my left ankle.
A crucifix, blue-black, one inch long. A punk crucifix, anti-religious, if anything. Homemade, in 1988. President Hinckley hadn’t yet made his pronouncement against tattooing, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have stopped me. In fact, I would have been all the more eager to grab a needle.
My kids hate the tattoo. They’ve had a dozen or more lessons on bodies-as-temples, and they’re pretty freaked about the “graffiti” on mine. Every few months or so, they notice the ink on my ankle and remind me that tattooing is wrong. And whenever we pass the Laser Tattoo Removal billboard on I-15, one of the kids inevitably comments, “That’s for you, Mom.” They don’t like their mother wearing a mark of disobedience.
I can sympathize. Once I escaped the misery that spawned the tattoo, I hated it myself. It was a token of a time I wanted to forget, a time of deep unhappiness, self-destruction, shame. A time when I happily punctured my own skin with a needle rapid as a woodpecker, driving ink below the surface in an attempt to impress my peers, and myself.
I’ve spent many years hiding the mark with socks and band-aids. I’ve made a point to cross my ankles right-over-left, especially at church, to keep it out of easy view. I’ve wished I had the cash to get the thing lasered off, to burn the dark skin and darker memories into oblivion. Even when tattoos became hip, I still wanted mine gone. It’s hardly a nifty little butterfly.
But these days, when I drive past that I-15 billboard, I realize things have changed, in more ways than one. These days I can afford a few hundred dollars for a little skin scorching. But I don’t want to do it.
I like my tattoo.
No, I don’t like the way it looks. As I’ve aged the lines of the crucifix have fuzzed a bit, making it appear especially crude; purple spider veins have crawled their way around it, like bloody vines. It’s undeniably ugly. But I no longer want to forget the ugliness in my past. By remembering, I also remember how God grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and lifted me out of that hell. I remember the saviors God sent to me, wearing all kinds of unlikely disguises. And I remember One in particular.
Funny, that I’ve embraced the sole Christian religion that doesn’t embrace the crucifix as a visual symbol of their faith. In their focus on the living Christ, Mormons don’t wear crosses around their necks. But I’m not sorry that I have one engraved on my body. And I will teach my children why. I will teach them that redemption must be remembered, and not only on Sunday. Every day.
Like the day I was visiting teaching Amy, a single mother, a grandmother, and a heroin addict fresh out of rehab. We wrote letters to each other while she was in her treatment program and began face-to-face visits last month, when she finished. She’s an amazing woman–bright, candid, real. During our visits she describes, sober-faced, the depraved state of being she lived in for two decades, and how God is leading her out.
She just received her patriarchal blessing. “I don’t remember much of what was said,” she told me, “except for this: ‘You are forgiven.’”
I looked down at my ankles, crossed left-over-right. And I nodded, and wept.