By the time you read this, my mother and I will be on the Mainland and I can finally talk about the secret I've been keeping for the past couple of months. Mom and I have been looking forward to this visit with my son; it's been three years since we last saw him.
When Jimmy moved to Michigan 15 years ago, I wasn't sure I'd survive the separation. I'd sit on his bed, hugging his pillow and the T-shirt he slept in, sobbing like a lost child. I didn't do his laundry for weeks, until the scent of Jimmy finally wore off, probably washed away by my tears.
I imagine my mother felt the same way when I left home for the first time. I don't think she spent her mornings with her face buried in my dirty clothes, but she did take the time to assemble a big scrapbook of my school days, complete with report cards, letters to Santa, crude drawings and silly poems.
When an only child leaves the nest, it's the mama bird who fusses and frets with separation anxiety, not the kid who's spreading his wings. My baby bird came home for annual visits at first, but he's established a nest of his own, far from Maui. Once he started raising his own brood, the visits became less convenient and more expensive. And, obviously, less frequent.
So Mom and I decided to visit them for a change. She and Jimmy are as close as any mother and son could be, since she and my dad raised him for a good part of his childhood. In fact, we each have our own collections of keepsakes from his grade school years. She brought hers along, to hand over to him. But that's not the surprise.
Last year, in this space, I mentioned that my mom got her first tattoo on her 83rd birthday. It's a dainty anklet, with her name in Japanese characters. I have a matching one on my right ankle, as well as a couple of smaller ones that aren't as visible. Like Mom, I got my first tattoo to commemorate a milestone in life.
Jimmy started asking for a tattoo when he was 13, and for his 16th birthday, I took him to premier body artist Samantha Fairchild for his first - a Hokusai wave with the Japanese character for courage adorning his right shoulder blade. Since then, he's added quite a few, each with personal significance. My favorite is the dragon that stretches across his left thigh. So when Jimmy last visited Maui, he was tickled to see his grandma's tattoo.
This year Mom turns 87 and, although she had said that her first tattoo would be her last, she changed her mind when she saw a particularly attractive design on a young friend. After some thought and revision, she came up with her own version. It's fairly large compared to the anklet, about 3-1/2 inches by 2 inches. Completely composed of Japanese characters, the centerpiece says kazoku, family. Surrounding it are the names of my parents and my son and me. Samantha did a beautiful job of inking it onto Mom's calf. "Don't tell Jimmy," Mom said. "I want to surprise him when we go to Michigan."
That was in April, and every time I've called Jimmy to discuss our vacation plans, I've had to remember to not let the cat out of the bag. When he called me a couple of days before our departure, he hemmed and hawed a bit before saying, "Mom, there's something I should tell you now, before you arrive. I got another tattoo, a big one. It's full color and it covers my forearm, elbow to wrist. I don't think Grandma's going to be too happy about this one."
I told him, "Oh, don't worry about Grandma's reaction. She just might surprise you."
And she did. The folks at Kalamazoo Airport baggage claim probably got a kick out of watching the elderly Japanese lady and the tall bearded guy comparing their body art. I know I did.
Tomorrow we'll all be in Chicago, where Jimmy has an even bigger surprise planned. I won't spill the beans until next week. Stay tuned!
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose Sharing Mana'o column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.