Stories I tell my students: Is that a tattoo on your forearm or are you just happy to see me?

In December of 2014, Jess and I were grieving so hard we could barely breathe, so we decided we needed new tattoos. We made a shared Pinterest board to share ideas; she already has a butterfly on her back for Dad, so chose hummingbirds for Mom. I decided to do a monarch, for both Myra and Dewey. I chose a photo I had taken a few years earlier of V holding a monarch we’d watch transform in our little bug cage. Myra had it blown up to an 8×10 and it was hanging in her apartment when she died.

Here’s mine, 14 months after initial ink:


We went to Libby at 46 and Tattoo, and were both pleased with our results (sorry I don’t have a photo of Jess handy. Take her out to lunch and maybe she’ll show you).

I have tenure in my Instructor position, so I wasn’t worried about causing too much kerfuffle at work; I did not anticipate, though, how much student interest there would be. Most of the time, on day one, someone in each class asks about my tattoo and what it means.

Now I’m no tattoo purist: I think you should ink your body if you feel like it (so long as it’s not hateful), and not everything has to be a metaphor. But this one does have significance for me. So I tell them this story.

When I was a little girl, my dad built big wire mesh cages for my mom to take monarch caterpillars to school, so her kindergartners could watch the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to monarch. All summer long, he’d bring back caterpillars he’d found out in the field and Jess and I were charged with replacing the milkweed every day until they hung from the top of the cage. It was always magical, even after watching hundreds of butterflies emerge, to get to witness this metamorphosis up close.

When my dad died in July of 2002, my mom, sister, and I were on our way to the funeral home in Ada and pulled off onto a dirt road near a particularly promising looking clump of milkweed. In the late 70s and early 80s, we just had to look and caterpillars would practically fall into our laps, but on this day in late July, we found none. Literally none. We stopped 3 times, and each time turned over leaf after leaf. It added to our heartbreak and felt natural at the same time: of course there are no more caterpillars, with Dad gone.

A few days later, at the graveside service after his funeral, Mom and I and Jess stood nearest the grave while the rest of our friends and family stood a little way behind us. Our cemetery is out in the country, and the day was bright and lovely. Pastor Tim said soothing things and as he spoke, a monarch butterfly flew over to my mom and swirled around all of us, flying in lazy loops, then flying away.

You think I’m making that up, but it really happened.

I don’t know that I believe in an afterlife at all, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t sure Dewey Johnson was in that butterfly that day.

(at this point in the story, students tend to shift, and smile gently, and sigh, because it’s sad and lovely. But it’s not over, gentle readers).

For years when we saw a monarch, we would all say “Hi Dad,” or “Hello, Dewey.” It was our good luck charm, one thin thread that kept us from despair.

When our mother died unexpectedly in July of 2014, Jess and I were awash in grief again. With no grown-up to guide us through this, we spent the days before the funeral weeping, and raging, and sorting Myra’s things. The day after she died, Jess had gone to Halstad and texted me on her way home.

“You won’t believe what I just saw,” she said, laughing. “Two monarchs, flying and mating, right along the highway.”

That’s right. My parents couldn’t even wait until Myra was in her grave to get it on again.

So, dear students: My tattoo is about a love so big that death couldn’t stop it. It’s about ghostly reincarnation sex. Aren’t you glad you asked?


About Jennifer

Writer teacher mama sister friend sewist poet trying to stay warm in Minnesota's northwest.
This entry was posted in Dad, Grief, Mama, Teach, Universe. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Stories I tell my students: Is that a tattoo on your forearm or are you just happy to see me?

  1. Shirley Johnson says:

    “Like” isn’t nearly strong enough word.

  2. Donna says:

    Beautiful story, Jen.

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