The Heartwarming Reason My Mom Got a Tattoo for Her 80th Birthday

Mom’s 80th birthday tattoo is just the latest example of her wild, newfound independence.

When your mother enters her ninth decade, you make a point of being a little extra vigilant for any signs of decline—memory loss, bouts of repetition, a general acceleration of age-related deterioration.

Thankfully, my mother has been blessed with good health, and although she now needs to take someone’s arm while walking slowly up and down the hill to the family cottage in Gatineau, her mental faculties seem to have remained largely intact. But when she got inked after turning 80 in September of 2020, I had to wonder.

To celebrate Mom’s landmark birthday, we were planning a large party, but then, of course, everything had to be cancelled because of COVID-19. After all, her entire social circle was high risk, composed as it is of septuagenarian and octogenarian friends from her book (wine) club, her garden (wine) club and her church.

Instead, we arranged a small outdoor family lunch on the deck at the lake.

My mother looks just like many grandmothers. She is short, plump and white-haired. She’s rosy-cheeked and jolly, and when she laughs her eyes almost seem to disappear behind those chubby cheeks. She comes from an old, traditional Catholic family in Ottawa, where she currently lives. She was a career civil servant, first in England and then in Canada. In short, she didn’t do crazy stuff.

That all changed a few years ago. She began to surprise my older brother and me with bouts of what she described as “independence.” At the time, we merely saw them as examples of irresponsibility and possibly age-related questionable judgment.

In early 2015, the year she turned 75, she informed us she’d booked a seven-night trip to Turkey. Alone. Because she had never been. Of course, that was absurd. There was no way my brother and I could allow that. A vulnerable, little old lady wandering the streets of Istanbul on her own, not speaking a word of Turkish, with no knowledge of the laws and customs of the land—it was out of the question!

She paid no attention to us. Off she went. When she returned, she told us it had been a wonderful success. As it turns out, she had barely spent any time alone, after hiring a taxi driver to show her around Istanbul for a few days. He took her to all the sites—the souks, mosques and restaurants. He introduced her to a rug vendor, “a lovely fellow,” and she bought some rugs. The vendor had taken her address details and promised to ship them to Canada. They would be arriving in three or four weeks. My mother beamed as she told this story. The rug vendor and my mother apparently struck up quite a friendship and she had told him to please drop by if he were ever in Canada.

We couldn’t believe how naive she had been and duly sat her down to explain that she had been duped. The vendor had her money (and plenty of it, as she had declined to haggle). She neither had nor would she be receiving any rugs. And, of course, she had no possible recourse.

Well, we were wrong.

To our great shock, her rugs did arrive some weeks later, along with a lovely note from Mustafa. To our even greater surprise, the following year Mustafa himself arrived in Canada. He called our mother to inform her he was in Ottawa.

“I invited him over and he came by for a cup of tea. They drink a lot of tea in Turkey,” my mother told my horrified brother and me.

She hardly knew this man! But again, she paid us little attention and told us to stop being silly.

At 77, she did a similar thing while on a Caribbean cruise with her younger sister. Upon disembarking in Cuba, she wandered off on her own, flagged down a motorcycle rickshaw and had the driver “show her around the island” for several hours. Of course, she neglected to inform her sister of her plans (“she would have worried”), causing my aunt to spend the entire afternoon searching for our mother. My aunt didn’t find her until Mom returned just before the ship was due to depart. She had been sampling a local drink with “some very nice Cubans” at a bar “somewhere off in the forest, just a shack of a place, really.”

Still, her 80th birthday was when she really outdid herself. Sitting on the cottage deck for a physically distanced, outdoor birthday lunch with her siblings and children, Mom informed us that she had decided the time had come to get a tattoo. Her first. It would be her 80th birthday present to herself. She had been thinking about it for some time, apparently, and her mind was made up.

My brother and I eyed each other. Was she joking? Recent history would say no. What the heck does Mom know about tattoos? She goes to church, not to tattoo parlours. And really, an 80-year-old woman going to a tattoo parlour during a pandemic? It seemed so absurd we really didn’t believe it.

Six days later, she had a very tasteful butterfly on the outside of her left ankle.

My brother and I wondered: Is she not thinking straight? And if so, is it because she’s getting on a bit? But while my brother and I worried about her, Mom showed us that she was still sound of mind. In fact, maybe she’s thinking straighter than most of us.

Her streak of independence seems to be thoughtfully based on a realization that life is to be lived, and when there’s relatively little of it left, it needs to be lived, well, now. It reminded me of the line from The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Like most of us during the pandemic, she spent lots of time away from many of the people she loves. The tattoo was her way of flipping 2020 the bird. And we couldn’t be prouder of her.

I don’t think Mom knows what her next big “thing” is. She’s a little old lady who sits in her apartment in Ottawa, but she won’t sit still much longer. Sure, she’s prone to folly, though maybe that’s what we need right now. Some pointless, wonderful folly.

Next, check out the life lessons we all learned from our moms.

© 2021, Mark Angus Hamlin. From “A Tattoo for Turning 80?,” The Globe and Mail (January 5, 2021),

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada