Sophie got her tragus pierced last night. She came home for two days for the inter-session break in her job as camp counselor and finally made good on her promise to herself of a new piercing.
The tragus is defined as “a prominence on the inner side of the external ear, in front of and partly closing the passage to the organs of hearing”. She’d been threatening–I mean, wanting–to pierce some bit of cartilage (her nose, her upper ear) for years. Our dermatologist informed us that pierced cartilage, versus pierced skin, never closes up. My stalling tactic had always been,
“Once you turn 18, you can do whatever you want. I’ll have no say in it.”
Well, she’s been 18 for one month and eight days, so she’s long overdue to assert her independence by puncturing the side of her face with a sharp metal object.
I, myself, have had my ears pierced twice. The first time was by my father, an ear, nose and throat doctor, in his office, alongside my childhood BFF, Bonnie, when we were 13. The second time was by someone at Claire’s–someone other than my father, who was probably nervous stabbing a needle through his daughter’s ear lobe–someone who was a practiced, piercing professional. I had this second piercing done as an adult, not to follow the double-piercing trend, but to correct the placement of that first, relatively botched piercing.
Sophie came into our room last night after 11 p.m. to show us her new mutilation–I mean embellishment. She had done the deed accompanied by her childhood BFF, Anna, and she was positively beaming. She is now brandishing a tiny, gray-silver stud on the inner curve of her up-till-now unblemished ear; her “apricot ears”, as I’ve always called them. Her ears, in my estimation, are perfectly shaped, innocent and soft as summer-ripe apricots.
She first talked about piercing something a little more bad-ass than her ear lobes, (which I caved in and agreed to let her pierce when she was 10, three years shy of the 13-year-old age limit I had originally set), when she spent six weeks in Israel two summers ago. Why is it that kids have to establish their autonomy by sticking needles through or into their skin?
“I will never get a tattoo,” she solemnly swears to me, by way of consolation. Can I please get this in writing (on paper, not skin).
I know exactly how I sound in voicing my disdain of piercings and tattoos. And I want to state, for the record, that I honestly have no objection to anyone doing whatever they want to their own body. Except my own children.
I guess what bothers me is that I look at their bodies as my creations, to some extent, and love them in their most pristine, unmodified state. I feel like I’m their OEM; their Original Equipment Manufacturer. I know this is nonsense. I was, at most, a conduit through which they were delivered into this world. But they are so perfect and glorious to me in their originally manufactured condition that it makes me wince to have this perfection tampered with.
The word “tragus” sounds kind of gross and a little obscene. It comes from the Greek, tragos, goat, in reference to the tuft of hair that sometimes grows behind it, inside the ear, and resembles (at least the Greek’s must have thought so) a goat’s beard. Fortunately, Sophie has no such tuft of hair, there. That would be gross.
You could argue that my fixation on my grown children’s physicality, my sense that they are living extensions of my own body, is what’s gross. But then you could argue that childbirth is gross. And you could claim that my primal involvement with and interest in the way they smell, feel and look is gross. But a mother animal, like a goat, is just that; an animal. Part of my connection with them is a deep, vestigial biological recognition.
Both of Sophie’s brothers have had their ears pierced. One also pierced his eyebrow and the other, his lip. Neither wears anything in those piercings anymore and the novelty seemed to wear off quickly, other than an occasional stud worn in an ear to this day.
Nate did manage to tattoo his own finger, at home, with a needle and some ink. His middle finger on his right hand bears the letters, “MN”, for Minnesota or Nate Milstein, depending on which way you read it.
Why did I get my own ears pierced? To wear cool or beautiful earrings, of course. I don’t remember being compelled by a sense of needing to break free from my parents through this act, although piercings can make a young person feel more grown up. So there is the matter of cultural convention and fashion, which any kid alive today could use when it comes to piercings and other forms of body art. Self expression, body beautification, trend following; the reasons are in the eyes (or eyebrows) of the beholder.
There’s also the implied sense of danger, daring and, oh yes, eroticism.
But maybe the supreme reason for using the body as a canvas is to stake a claim on our physical beings. My body may have been synthesized through the genetic combination and physical matter of other human bodies, but now it belongs to me. Not them. I am in charge of these parts, now.
I went down to wake her up this morning and asked her more about it.
“Did it hurt?”
“Not at all. It’s Saint Sabrina’s, so it’s very sanitary and very professional.”
This is not meant to be a plug–no pun intended–for Saint Sabrina’s. Ironic, how one of my most-used nicknames for my Sophie is “Sabrina”.
“It is kind of barbaric. They use a hollow needle with a hook on the end…”
I finally said,
“Does this have something to do with your independence?”
Without opening her eyes, she just smiled and nodded her sweet, newly-studded head; the head that pushed its way out of me 18 years and eight days ago, and has kept pushing away from me ever since. Such self-satisfaction in the nodding of that gorgeous head.
“I just wanted to do some decorating.”
So why the tragus? If you look back at the definition of that particular region, it’s described as “…in front of and partly closing the passage to the organs of hearing”. It is a barrier, a boundary if you will, to the opening directly into her ear, the ear I have been filling with a steady stream of “do this, don’t do that” for the past 18 years. She has driven a stake into the fleshy ground between us. She is the queen of her castle, now. She can lift the drawbridge and prevent me from entering.
In the car later this morning, on the way back to the camp buses she was to help load with campers, I said something about how the next time she comes home from camp, we’ll be getting her ready to go to college.
“We’ll be getting you packed for your new life. And once you leave, I’ll be starting my new life, too.” to which she replied, as much to herself as to me,
“My life is not your life. And your life is not my life.”
Technically, this is true. I waited for more elaboration on that thought, but none came.
And so it goes. Sophie will return to camp this afternoon, where she will spend the next three weeks, the summer-ripe belly of this season, caring for her young charges. I am amazed and heartened by how attached she gets to her campers. She will return home for exactly two weeks, which we will spend shopping and packing for her departure to college.
For my part, I have landed a job for fall semester as a Supplemental Instructor at Normandale Community College. I will be teaching Freshman Honors English Comp to students just like my daughter. I might be just as excited–and anxious–about college this year as she is.
Kissing her goodbye at the busses, I leaned close to her tender tragus and asserted my interdependence,
“Your life IS my life.”
Watching the mothers of the young campers load their children onto the busses that not too long ago Sophie was boarding as a camper, not a counselor, I envied their stage in this game. They may turn away and cry or turn away and sigh, relieved at the thought of having a couple weeks break from these kids. I did both, over the years. But knowing that your child is coming home from camp only to venture off into her own life–that the growing space between us will never completely close up again–makes for an even more bittersweet send off.
I just want her to keep her tragus open enough to hear me say,
Don’t go too far, in your quest for independence. You are tattooed on my spirit; you have pierced my being.