“Claire and I found a little bitty ladybug. She was about 4 or 5. And I said, ‘We never kill ladybugs. They’re good luck, and sometimes they fly away. So we watched it awhile, and then it flew away!'”
Those lines were spoken by my 78-year-old Aunt Terry, as she recounted a tender moment she once had with Claire.
In the tattoo parlor.
Let me be clear – the story about the ladybug wasn’t set in a tattoo parlor. Rather, Terry told us this story to explain what she was doing. And what she was doing was getting her first tattoo – of a ladybug, on her shoulder, over 4th of July weekend during our family reunion.
It wasn’t exactly a rash decision, as Terry had been talking about this tattoo for months, though the day she decided to do it the whole process of getting to the tattoo shop and having the needle in her arm took less than an hour. I had been floating in the pool as the kids watched a movie inside, thinking about how relaxed I felt, and we started to discuss this idea again. All of the sudden (at least to me) Terry was on the phone with the tattoo parlor, getting ready to get inked. My cousins Larissa and Brooke threw ourselves in the car with her and we headed downtown, laughing much of the way. Was she really going to do this?
Of course she was!
My Aunt Terry was never one to follow convention. As a child, I saw her as an incredible rock star, my aunt who lived in New York City and wore all black clothing with bright red lipstick and called everyone “darlin'”. Whenever I visited her, I looked with awe at her apartment that was painted pink, with art covering every space on every wall and an oven that she used mostly for storage. I loved that she seemed to know everyone in that massive city, but reserved her greatest love for her nieces and nephews. Without kids of her own, we all became hers, and when we had kids ourselves, she delighted in each and every one of them.
And they delighted in her.
How could they not? As kids, she thought everything we did was “adorable.” And now she feels the same about her grand nephews and nieces. She buys little presents for the kids whenever she sees something they might like and laughs at all of their crazy stories. She reads the National Enquirer and when we make fun of her for doing so, she laughs and claims that it might give us something to talk about! Her stories are hilarious (as one friend put it, “Terry never lets facts get in the way of a good story!”) and her joy about so much of the world is obvious. When my kids go somewhere with her, they think it’s funny how she always stops and talks to every baby and every dog. Grown-ups don’t usually do that!
But Aunt Terry does.
It’s funny that I haven’t yet written a blog post that’s only about my Aunt Terry, because she has always been such an important part of my life. She was there for me when my mom died, yes, but it was the years after – especially my early years in DC – when she was such a rock for me as I was figuring out my place in the world. When Shawn died, she grieved openly, and I knew she struggled. Like everyone, I knew she didn’t know what to do for me. But really, she did know. She simply kept loving me, as she always had.
And she knew what to do for my kids. She could listen to their stories, delight in their joy. One other very concrete thing she could do was to send cards.
She’d always done this for me and my cousins. When we were kids, every once in a while, we’d open the mailbox to real mail from New York City! Usually, she’d just scribble a few lines, something like, “miss you honey-bunny!” and that was it. But we knew she’d been thinking of us. Of course, she’d always sent a few cards to my kids, too. But once Shawn died, she made it her mission to send more. In fact, just today, they got a card in the mail. “To the Brimley Kids” it said, with a photo of a turtle mama and baby on the front. Inside it said, “You 3 are on my mind…always. All my love, Terry.”
Maybe this is the best way to express the essence of Aunt Terry. It’s a difficult thing to capture about anyone, really, but especially about a person like her. When she’s asked what she’s doing in retirement, she answers “living my best life!” – and a more true statement has never been made. But it’s the way she lives that “best life” that’s so wonderful. She lives her best life by seeing the joy in every place that it exists. I love that she dwells on the stories of preteens and overworked secretaries and waiters and teachers, and that she thinks my children – and all the Clark family children – are “absolutely the cutest kids ever!” I love that she tells people at the grocery store that she loves their outfits and that she eats peanut butter sandwiches with the kids when she feels like it and that she wears sparkly baseball hats that she found by Googling “sparkly baseball hat”. I love that she thinks everything I cook is the best thing she’s ever eaten and that she both desperately misses Shawn and desperately loves Chris. I love that she can see the joy I had in my past and the joy that I have now – both in the old memories she has and in the small moments when I’m hugging Chris in Nana’s kitchen and she says, “oh, you two are such lovebirds!” I love that when she went to get a tattoo, she wanted it to represent one of those tiny moments when she felt joy.
This must have been a tall task, because Aunt Terry feels joy in so many moments. But I love that the moment she chose was a moment that she shared with Claire. A moment with a little bitty ladybug.
The tattoo parlor where we went was staffed by two men who both sported tattoos everywhere, including her tattoo artist who had multiple tattoos on his face. He seemed mildly bemused by my Aunt Terry, but he took her seriously. Yes, she wanted a red ladybug on her shoulder. Yes, it wouldn’t take too long. Yes, she might be the oldest person he’d ever tattooed. Yes, we could FaceTime all the kids back home at Nana’s, so everyone could watch this happen.
Fifteen minutes later, it was done. Less than an inch across her shoulder, the tiny ladybug was just as she wanted it. A permanent bit of luck, something that would never fly away.
And a permanent bit of joy. Not that she needed a tattoo for that.