Richard Reiss | Reiss’ Pieces: Tattoos and gardens marking the time in lines on our skin and soil – Berkshire Eagle

Im building a vegetable garden. No, thats not true. Im paying someone to build a vegetable garden for me.

Ill plant the seeds and Ill pull the weeds once the soil is ready and a fence is installed to keep out the deer. But two young people, a man and woman half my age, will do the labor of preparing the ground for the fresh corn and cucumbers Ill enjoy next summer. Soon Ill read a book about growing vegetables. Thats certain to help me since I dont know much. I know that plants need water and Im prepared to water the garden. I might even buy a sprinkler.

When the real gardeners arrived to survey my land, I did a quick survey of them. They were young. They appeared fit. They had a lot of tattoos. As we walked the property, looking for the best location for the garden, we began to talk about things other than soil and vegetables. It was obvious the gardeners were more than business partners; they were partners in life. I noticed they each had an identical tattoo across their right hands. In flowing black script, it said, To Hell with Luck.

We seemed to be getting along, and even though I had known these people for fewer than 20 minutes, I said, Whats that about? referring to their bold statement. They laughed a little. They looked at each other acknowledging stories they had no intention of sharing with me and said, practically in unison, Weve had a lot of bad luck.

Bad luck is something I know too much about. And even though I didnt know their stories, I felt we might be kindred spirits through suffering. I said, Yeah, me too, but, like them, I was far from ready to share my misery. What I did share was that I also had a tattoo. And like theirs, mine has an identical twin, although I havent seen it in 45 years. It was 1975 and my best friend and I decided we would get matching tattoos. Back then, not a whole lot of 18-year-olds were getting inked. As far as I knew, anyone with a tattoo was either a sailor, a criminal or in the circus. Long hair was getting shorter and bell bottoms were out. So, for us, the tattoos were an act of rebellion that we thought would seal our friendship forever. We found a tattoo parlor not far from where we lived. The owner was a big man with a long, thick beard. If I had to guess, Id say he was a sailor. We had no idea what we wanted. The big, bearded man suggested that we get a battleship across our chests.

How much? I asked.

$200, he said.

I said, What can we get for 10 bucks?

He pulled out a book of designs that included flowers, lightning bolts, tiny animals, numbers and letters in different fonts, and lots of insects, none of which were larger than a nickel.

How about that one, I said to my friend, pointing to a small butterfly with orange and red wings. I like it, he said.

An hour later we were back at my parents house admiring the butterflies on our ankles. We said someday, when were really old and maybe not friends anymore, and probably wouldnt know what the other person looked like, that we could find each other by checking out all of the ankles of all the men wed ever meet. We thought that was hysterical and both of us rolled on the floor laughing.

My butterfly was neither good luck nor bad luck. It never caused me great harm other than the fury that was heaped upon me when my father discovered it. That was ugly, but life with my father was always a little ugly. On the positive side, most of the girls I met in college thought it was cool. It made me unique, maybe even a little sensitive. For the most part, it was and is an intentional distraction that still surprises most people who know me.

The gardeners had little interest in my tattoo.

I said, Getting a tattoo back then was way ahead of the curve. It wasnt something suburban kids did.

No luck. They said, Would you like natural or treated wood for the fence? So much for kindred anything.

Disappointed, I said, Natural.

Beyond my minor act of rebellion, I never really understood why I got that tattoo. The friendship with my fellow rebel disappeared sooner than I expected, and Ive spent far too much time over the ensuing decades trying to explain my butterfly. The colors are gone, faded with the years. And as my years too will be fading soon, I wonder if my butterfly will carry me in flight to the garden I have long desired.

A butterfly lives between 20 and 40 days. My butterfly is nearly 46 years old. Its been a good run, fraught with more than enough turmoil, but as the saying goes, Im still standing.

So yeah, To Hell with Luck. Like my gardeners, I dont have much faith. What little faith I have rests in flights of fancy. But Im eager very eager for my butterfly to land in my garden. When it does, it will discover the nourishment of the soil, the scent of the flowers and the power of connectivity to this land I cherish.

Richard Reiss is the author of Desperate Love: A Fathers Memoir. He lives in Canaan, N.Y., with his wife Paula.

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Richard Reiss | Reiss' Pieces: Tattoos and gardens marking the time in lines on our skin and soil - Berkshire Eagle

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