Phillipa’s tattoo epiphany

My mother was anything but materialistic. Her closet held nothing but the essentials. The only jewelry she owned was her wedding band and a pair of gold stud earrings shaped like butterflies. No knick-knacks, not even picture frames. Our house was the epitome of minimalistic design. Almost everything in our house was black or white.

I sigh, looking around the house as I put on my black Panama hat. My eyes stop on my reflection in the gold rimmed, full length mirror on the wall across from me. Black velvet turtleneck. Black pants. The only thing that stands out about me today are the circular gold rims of my glasses. I’m usually so much more colorful than this.

My mother would have never owned something as frivolous as a Panama hat. Everyone has always asked me where my “fashion gene” comes from. “Who knows,” I always say. “Maybe one of my ancestors was the top fashionista in Madagascar.” 

For a moment, I consider taking off the hat. Would she have approved? She never said anything about my clothes. She never forced her way of life on me. I instinctively glance down at my right hand, the skin still a little red around the fresh black ink. She definitely would not have approved of that.

That which was not black or white in our house was either gold or green. Gold accents like the mirror. Gold doorknobs and curtain rods. And plants, so many plants. There was not a single room in our house without at least one plant. Raindrop peperomias, Chinese evergreens, snake plants and English ivies. Even the bathrooms had little succulents strung along the counter or hung from the ceiling.

Grandmother always used to say that the happiest homes allow the world in, allow the natural to intermingle with the manmade. My mother had taken that to heart. 

I often wonder if my house will look like this one day. It seems as though my “fashion gene” came at the expense of my “green thumb gene.” I’d never managed to keep a plant alive for more than two weeks. Meanwhile, my mother had seemed to know how to care for a plant without any instruction. She always said it was in her blood, which only made me wonder more why it wasn’t in mine.

I force myself to walk out of the door and meet my father down in front of the house. He is already in the car. The white Honda Pilot feels out of place today. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father wear a suit. Perhaps on a different day, I’d make a joke out of this fact. Today, I simply sit down in the passenger seat, buckle my seat belt and silently watch the garage door shrink as he backs out of the driveway and then heads for the church.

The leaves on the trees that line the road look plastic as the car whizzes past. Mother always said that meant it was going to rain. I say a silent prayer that the sky holds off its tears until after the ceremonies are finished. Just before the amen passes my silent lips, I add a request to help me do the same.

My mother named me Phillipa because it meant lover of horses. She called me Ponygirl when I was a toddler, always telling me to stay gold. I would never forget reading “The Outsiders” together for the first time and hearing the origin of the words I’d heard so many times before.

“They stole your saying, Mama!”

She smiled gently, somberly. “I’m afraid they actually had it first. I stole it from them.”

My eyes widened at the idea that my mother would ever steal anything. Years later, I would bring up that moment after receiving reprimands for plagiarism on an essay in fourth grade. I had urged my reader to stay gold.

When I was in middle school, my mother started calling me Butterfly. I asked her why. She said, “Both butterflies and horses fly in their own ways. I always knew you’d be a flyer. It just took me a while to realize that you were going to blossom into a butterfly.” 

That was the day I decided to become a pilot.

Breaking the silence, my father shakes me back to reality. “Phillipa, do you want to see in the casket?”


“It’s a closed casket, per your mother’s request. But before the visitation begins they will offer you and me a chance to see her one last time.”

I swallow. “Are you going to look?”

He doesn’t answer.

I study my father’s face. Deep creases had surrounded his eyes for weeks now. His dry dark skin and his tired hazel eyes make it clear to me that he hasn’t been taking care of himself. I make a mental note to call the airline and ask for an extra week off. I need to make sure he is taken care of. I need to make sure I don’t end up losing him to his grief. 

I can’t lose him, too. Not yet.

My tattoo catches the corner of my eye and draws my attention away from him for a while. I wonder how long it will take for me to get used to it— to not feel like something foreign is stuck to my skin. I considered gold ink but decided I wanted the subtlety of black. For a little over a week now, a small butterfly had called the space between the bottom and middle knuckles of my right index finger home. Next to it, on the side of my middle finger in small capital letters were the words “stay gold.”

I know my mother didn’t approve of tattoos. I know she thought they took away from the natural beauty of the human body and that there was a touch of immorality in the purposeful scarring of God’s creation. But I couldn’t help it. I needed to know her death wouldn’t mean everything about her would fly away from me. I needed something to keep me grounded in this new reality where she wasn’t here.

I glance up at the grey sky as we pull into the church parking lot. I wonder if I will feel closer to her when I go back to work. I wonder if all my flying has been preparation for this moment. Maybe even though we weren’t connected by style or gardening skills, maybe we will be connected in that grand expanse that now exists between us.

“I’m not going to look in the casket,” I whisper to my father, still looking at the sky. He nods as if to say the matter is now settled. Neither of us will look.

I won’t look in the casket because I trust I’ll see her again, smiling and laughing and telling me to stay gold. And until that day, I’ll keep flying.