So macho is my father that he once removed an ingrown toenail with a hand-held drill.
My brother Mike and I watched him use his fists to break up trouble at places like the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit or at Little League playgrounds in our northwest neighborhood during the 1960s. As a cop, he was always on duty. Using physical force to quell disturbances in front of his kids was invariably preceded by the words: “Mike, hold my watch!”
He even removed a four-inch tombstone tattoo that took up most of his right forearm by using a large piece of coarse grit sandpaper and rubbing away for hours while watching ballgames on TV. Today, an outline of a cross remains as a ghostly reminder of what was once there.
I was saddened by the loss of the tattoo because it was one of the few links I had to my paternal grandmother, Tekla Matlock Pyzik, a Polish immigrant and Detroit mother of nine who died of heart disease at age 43 on my dad’s 16th birthday.
He enlisted in the Navy shortly after that and fought in the Pacific during World War II aboard the USS William C. Miller, a destroyer escort that performed anti-submarine operations against the empire of Japan and returned home with seven battle stars.
The tattoo was an impulsive move made during shore leave in Honolulu between the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaigns sometime between November 1943 and February 1944 and before the sailors were to depart for the Philippines and Iwo Jima.
My dad and three of his buddies went into a tattoo parlor together. One emerged with a naked lady tattoo (said to be the ugliest in the Pacific fleet; he later had it remade into an American eagle), another with a rose on his shoulder. I later found out that a rose tattoo symbolizes a death that occurred too soon. Mortality must have been on their minds.
My dad picked out an image of a large cross-shaped gravestone emblazoned with the word “Mother.” At the base of the tombstone were pink and red flowers. He later told me he regretted it the next day. The raw display and constant reminder of his grief were too much. In later years, he always wore long-sleeved shirts to cover up the tattoo, unless he was playing golf.
My grandmother is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Detroit. The tombstone on my father’s arm was fancier than anything that marks her grave. Her 31 grandchildren have been left with just a few bits of her life — three or four faded photos, her wedding ring and the memories of her remaining children, my dad and his sisters Bernice and Caroline.
My dad tells stories about growing up in Depression-era Detroit that sound like an urban version of Huck Finn, including what fun they had swimming in the Rouge River near the Ford assembly plant and playing ball in the streets.
But in reality, his was a welfare family that was evicted from 18 homes in 18 years. At one point, the Detroit social-services department had nowhere to put them, so they wound up living for a time in an abandoned store on Vernor Highway. His father, my Grandpa Frank, was an alcoholic and my grandmother did whatever was necessary to survive, including using city-provided rent money to buy food. I know she was a fighter and a survivor, and I understand my dad’s wartime tribute to her.
The tattoos in my family today tell a different story.
The women tend to have cutesy things like dragonflies and musical notes. One of my male cousins chronicles his love of cars and food via body art, including a tattoo that features the words “Amo Crustum,” supposedly Latin for “I love pie,” along with a vintage hotrod. The same cousin has a tattoo of a skeletal version of the Statue of Liberty. When I asked him what it meant, he replied: “My country is dead.”
It may be a postmodern version of a tombstone tattoo, but nothing comes close to the simplicity and beauty of a faded one with the words “Mother.”