Image by Sinta Jimenez
Kirk Molitor is a man who relies heavily on the power of prayer. In the 33 years of being my father, he has sent many a request skyward on my behalf—arriving to school safely each day, marrying a Republican, a healthy fear of skydiving, and other such appeals.
His prayers have a tendency to lean into the self-serving realm. For example, asking God to remove my tattoos before I’m allowed to cross the threshold into heaven. My father, the same man who wouldn’t let me enter Abercrombie and Fitch as a teen because of the shirtless man on the shopping bags, tugs on the Great Almighty’s robes to solemnly request that when I die, the devil’s ink on my skin be condemned to remain on Earth, while I live out a blank canvas eternity in the Lord’s—and his—presence. It’s not necessarily that he fears for my salvation, but that he simply doesn’t want to be around my ink any longer than necessary. Eternity, for instance.
So, of course, I did what any self-respecting teen does the moment she is out of the clutches of her parents—whatever they didn’t want me to do in the first place. I endured my first tattoo at 19 years old, and my father told me I was no longer employable.
It was a cross on my hip. I wanted to be a journalist.
It’s not just my dad sounding the alarm; both of my parents have made their disdain of my body modification choices quite clear. Only my father currently hates them, though, because my mom committed suicide five days after Christmas in 2018.
Of course, her death has more to do with years of rampant, horrifying alcoholism, but regardless, she would not be pleased to find me sitting in a folding chair with my left forearm extended on a padded stand while a bearded man named Jake methodically tattoos her handwriting into my skin. His fully inked arms and neck make my meager collection of words and images seem adorably juvenile.
He carefully traces the lighthouse with his buzzing tattoo gun before filling it in with sketch-like strokes. It feels like a toddler is sloppily coloring my arm with a crayon knife, but I watch his movements with disinterest. I don’t want a realistic image, I tell him. I want it to be a little messy.
A fascination with lighthouses is not novel by any stretch. Plenty of people have enjoyed their symbolism even before inspirational posters were a thing. You know the type—picture any generic office space and your mind will likely include a framed image of a towering lighthouse beaming its light over the dark water below, perfected by an noun blaring its ideals underneath. ATTITUDE, perhaps, or LEADERSHIP.
My mom’s love of lighthouses was admittedly cliché, but sincere. She was attracted to these structures because they symbolized hope in the face of the impossible—a guiding light when confronted with choppy, murky water. They were a signal to ships that they weren’t alone. Many of these familiar images hang in my childhood home, in frames above the kitchen table and bathroom mirror, and in ceramic figurine form scattered like popcorn across any available surface.
Lighthouses are stability, and my mom had little in her life. As a young girl—not much older than my own pre-kindergarten daughter—she confided in her mother that she had been the victim of sexual abuse. I doubt she even had the accurate words for what had happened to her. My stomach churns even imagining my daughter saying those words to me, swirling with pain and guilt in myself for not protecting her. My grandmother, however, did not respond like this. Instead, she told my mother—her young daughter—that this sort of thing, while unpleasant, was part of life for women. She’d endured it, too, she told my mother. There wasn’t much to do about it.
I try hard to understand generational differences that could account for my grandmother’s reaction. I hate saying “it was a different time,” but, well, it truly was a different time. The home where the abuse was happening was the only available childcare while my lower-middle class grandparents both worked full-time jobs. It is horrifying to imagine my grandmother knowingly continue to bring her young child to the perpetrator’s home—to be under his care—but desperation makes you do unimaginable things. Add gender inequality into the mix and you have the foundation for a very scared, hurt little girl who is a casualty of her parents’ circumstance. Women’s words held little weight, and a little girl’s even less. There was no light to guide her ship.
Two decades later, she married my father. My dad is a stalwart; kindness and generosity spread thick under a surface layer of stern looks and conservative values. He’s a tough egg to crack. I’ve never seen him succumb to a single tear, let alone be overcome with emotion. If I did, I fear it may be the end of the world. He loves so deeply that it often struggles to make its way to the surface.
My mom was his second wife—his first wife was killed in a car wreck only a few miles from home shortly after they married. I’ve often thought my dad’s conviction rivals that of Job.
Beneath the lighthouse that now lives on my arm are five words: “the world at your disposal.” The phrase is written in my mom’s handwriting because it was captured on a four-page letter she wrote me from a jail cell in Ford County, Kansas. It’s one of several such letters I have stashed away in a small wooden box with a broken latch, alongside a pair of pearl earrings she gave me—I’m too afraid to wear them because the backing is loose—and a plastic bag of trinkets I took from her room after she died.
Each letter is penned in her tall, loopy cursive on loose-leaf paper, creases tattooed crosswise where it has long been folded. Some are naked, while some are still in the envelope with the jail’s return address stamped in the corner. They are postmarked with dates that span nearly two decades.
Upon their arrival, finding such a letter in my mailbox ignited emotions ranging from heartbreak to rage to hope. I don’t recall receiving the letter that would eventually spawn a tattoo but reading it now I feel my mom’s tenderness searching for me through the lines.
The full sentence from which the phrase is now imprinted on my arm reads, Always remember how much I love you and how proud I am of you. You are a beautiful woman with the world at your disposal.
The bearded man told me that the phrase wouldn’t fit underneath my arm’s lighthouse, so I edited. Besides, I can still read the two-page letter in its entirety any time I want.
The letter is dated Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011. I was already done with my short-lived career in journalism—although it did not end because of my cross tattoo, despite my father’s warnings—trading it in for a job in marketing, and my mom was on her stint in the Ford County Jail. It was also her third DUI charge, and it wouldn’t be her last. These instances blur together, but I believe this particular confinement resulted from the evening she lied about attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and, instead, went to a drive-through liquor store before parking in front of the grocery store across the street. She drank her purchases and soon passed out in her drivers’ seat before a Dodge City police officer knocked on her window.
But it’s also possible it stemmed from the time she was pulled over on the highway for passing a car going 80 miles an hour before blowing a .22 blood alcohol level into a patrolman’s breathalyzer. I know it wasn’t the night she ran her forest green Crown Victoria into a telephone pole on a curvy dirt road near a feedlot, because that was her first offense. My brother can attest, as he was there when they put the handcuffs around her pale, slender wrists. He was barely a teenager.
Each of her four DUIs end the same way, so what’s the point in punishing yourself in a quest to remember the painful distinguishing details? Kansas quits playing around after two DUI offenses. My mother, who made excellent guacamole and couldn’t resist a good shoe sale, was a felon two times over when she died.
It’s alarming, when I sit down and list the things I can’t remember. My timeline is wrong because it doesn’t match up against verifiable dates. But my brother’s timeline is wrong, too; so is my dad’s. When forced to remember when an event happened, we toss random details into the air and see if any of them fit into the narrative we’ve constructed. It will always be fuzzy, of course, because the person with the real timeline isn’t here to correct us.
Her letter begins, Just want to drop you an actual letter ‘cause, like you, I think better when I write. She did. I do.
It’s a scary and guilt-ridden road, realizing how much of my mom runs through my veins. Obviously, as she formed half my biological makeup, but as I get older I resemble her more and more, and her anxieties and sensitivities become my own. My physical attributes may strongly resemble my father’s side, but her bone structure is beginning to show itself in my 30-something face, and her empathy winds its way deeper into my soul. A propensity for gift buying. A hatred of math but a penchant for subtracting sale percentages. Decorating walls with copious amounts of picture frames.
I like alcohol, too. The difference is architectural. For me, having a drink scratches the same itch as subconsciously picking the skin around my nails or braiding small pieces of my hair when I’m concentrating. I don’t constantly think about the next time I’ll get to partake in either, just like I don’t dream about the next time I can have a drink. It’s there if I want it but is just as often forgotten or inconvenient.
Meanwhile, my mom preferred her booze hidden in a drainage pipe a mile from our house or sloshing around in glass bottles under the seat of her car. I prefer soft pajamas on my couch, polishing off a bottle of wine with a carefully curated 48 Hours marathon as the soundtrack. I like decent gin with half a lime squeezed into a rocks glass, splashed with Schweppes, just like my dad makes it. Conversely, if beer or vodka were not available, my mom would gratefully accept cologne, mouthwash, cooking wine, hairspray, rubbing alcohol, or pure vanilla. “Are you serious, Kathy? Are you kidding me?” I remember my father incredulously exploding to my mother after he discovered his new bottle of Giorgio Armani cologne completely emptied just days after being purchased from a Dillard’s department store in Wichita.
My ancestors pioneered their Western Kansas homestead more than a century ago, and we’ve farmed in that location ever since. I hated growing up there, I’m ashamed to admit. We lived between two 800-person towns, a literal 15 miles each way, with wheat fields and pasture bordering all sides. Today, the isolation is peaceful and rejuvenating, but as a teenager it was painfully disconnected from the outside world. I grew up, gained perspective, and had the ability to leave and appreciate my childhood with the gift of nostalgia. My mom grew up isolated, not only in her small town but in her own mind, and then moved to an even more isolated farm for a stable, quiet life. For me, it was a foundation from which to grow. For my mom, it was the end of the road.
We were in the car together on the short dirt-road drive to the family farm. I was 15 and pissed for some pointless teenage reason. To make sure she was equally irritated, I told her I wanted to pierce my nose.
“Sure, try it, and see what happens,” she said.
“I’ll be 18 and I can do what I want,” I taunted.
“Try it,” she repeated, igniting a flash of anger inside me.
Wouldn’t be the worst thing someone in this family has done, I inwardly lamented as I stared out the passenger window, planning my eventual escape and pretending I was in a sad music video.
When I pierced my nose the summer after my freshman year of college with a tiny stud in my left nostril, my mom was in rehab. She didn’t know about the piercing until I reluctantly visited her during a family weekend, and she never commented on its existence.
The lighthouse tattoo isn’t my first piece of body art giving a nod to my mom’s addiction. For some time, I’d wanted a tattoo on my back but was terrified to do it before my wedding in August 2012. I, a grown woman with a career, apartment, cat, and fiancé, was certain my father would combust at the mere thought of staring at my sin for 20 minutes from the first church pew, my mom’s lips pursed next to him.
She was drunk at my wedding. Her eyes are slightly closed in all the pictures, vacant smile on her lips. She looked so beautiful, though, pride forcing its way through the numbness. My dad carried her limp form to his pickup at the end of the evening. That morning, though, as we had sat in salon chairs getting our hair and makeup done, she gently held my shoulders at an arm’s length and looked at me, tears glazing her eyes. It may have been joy, but it looked like pain. Her breath came in staccato beats.
“Mom, it’s fine,” I said with a laugh. “Today is a good day.”
I didn’t proceed with my second tattoo to spite her, but she may have felt that way. I never asked her opinion. A wilted flower, I told a different bearded man. But, you know, a pretty one. Pulled up from the roots, I added, with the words “serenity,” “courage,” and “wisdom” separately woven into the thread-like tendrils at the flower’s end. Of course, the words were from the Serenity Prayer, mumbled in a circle at the end of every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
A dead flower with readable roots. I was a cornucopia of feminine creativity.
I felt very meta and wise when I told the tattoo artist that I chose these words and the dying plant on which they would forever live because “when everything else is dead and gone, those are the only things you have left.” Of course, this is bullshit. If your mother kills herself in the bedroom she shared with your father for 30-plus years, you would be forgiven for not finding a shred of serenity, courage, or wisdom in any corner of the experience.
It’s one of my favorite tattoos, though. The artist was talented, taking my half-baked, naïve idea and giving it purpose. We can still learn from what is lost, even if it had to be ripped from the earth. I hope my mom found peace in this knowledge. I have not.
When my dad informed me of his prayer goals that would erase my body art, I had just told him my idea for the lighthouse tattoo, several months after my mother’s suicide. He gave his trademark straight-lipped nod before confessing his posthumous wishes. Several weeks later, he made the four-hour drive to my house, bringing my brother, sister-in-law, and baby niece for a weekend visit, celebrating my oldest daughter’s fourth birthday. I had gotten the tattoo the week before.
“Let me see,” my brother asked, reaching for my arm. I turned it out toward him, brushing flakes off the image, which was starting to heal and scab. “How did you get Mom’s handwriting?”
“A letter she wrote me from jail. I have a whole bunch of them.”
“I’m sure you do,” he said softly from the couch, slightly shaking his head.
I attempted to ignore his justified anger. I wasn’t the one who found her, I reminded myself. I did not smell the vodka and mouthwash and God knows what else in that room before calling two grown children to inform them that their mother had shot herself with his own handgun, pulling the comforter over her head before placing the barrel of the gun over the fabric, pushing it into her mouth. I didn’t have my relationship and choices from the last several decades questioned by police, family members, friends, and the community at large. He deserves his anger, but I do not share it.
Still, he says, “let me see,” also gesturing for my hand. He runs his thumb over the handwriting.
I have seen you mature into a sensible adult over the last couple of years and again I beam with pride.
I hadn’t seen my mom since she was released from jail, and I was still in that tenuous place where logic told me to draw a hard line in the dirt to keep my distance and protect my heart. But that same heart craved the tender attention of a mother who I could never firmly grasp with both hands. On a summer weekend at home, I found myself seated on a lawn chair next to her on the front lawn, overlooking a ripe wheat field and miles of sky.
We rarely found a natural, easy groove of conversation. There was too much to say and not enough words. She broke the silence first.
“Want to see my latest piece of jewelry?” she asked, slightly lifting her left calf from the ground. I grimaced inwardly at the awkward joke but forced a short laugh.
“Sure, let’s see it.”
She pulled her pantleg away from her sneaker to reveal a black band, about an inch wide, around her ankle, attached to a thin black box. It resembled an early smartwatch prototype, except instead of fitness data, it collected location information for law enforcement.
I struggled for a response. “Looks good” didn’t seem appropriate, but neither did “serves you right.” I settled on a question.
“How long do you have to wear it?”
The device also monitored any alcohol consumption. She made it the full 90 days without so much as a flicker of uncertainty sent from her ankle to the authorities. The threat of jail did what the reality of losing her family could not. The monitor came off after the prescribed 90 days, but the breathalyzer on her car stayed on for a year. We celebrated when it was uninstalled, but within a couple of months she would receive her fourth DUI. A year later, she would be dead.
The last Christmas my mom celebrated on earth was only five days before her death. I ordered two necklaces from an online artist, a silver tree with my daughters’ birthstones implanted in the branches for my mother-in-law, and one for my own mother with a small bronze plate stamped with “Ammaw”—my daughter’s pronunciation of “Grandma.” This necklace held three strung birthstones: September, for my daughter; November, for my baby niece; and February, for the child currently baking inside me.
They were both beautiful, but the necklace for my mom was by far my favorite. She was on her way to intoxicated when I gave it to her at Christmas but I was determined to ignore it and enjoy the moment.
“It says ‘Ammaw’ because it’s for you!” my daughter exclaimed proudly.
“It’s perfect,” she replied, but she looked at me.
Memory is a funny thing. While writing, I attempted to get my facts straight by texting my brother, the only other person in my life with a nearly identical childhood experience.
Was Mom’s third DUI the one in the Dillon’s parking lot?
I think so. She hit the pole with the green car on the first one, drove through a pasture fence the second one, and the Dillon’s lot for the third. Where was number four?
I thought the fourth was in the Dillon’s lot, too, or am I making that up? Also, wasn’t one across from that gas station by the rest stop?
No, that one we came and got her beforehand, I think. All I know for sure is there were four of them.
There are huge, life-altering moments that are alarmingly missing from my memory. My mother received four DUIs in her lifetime, two of which could have been life threatening, and two of which were felonies. I can’t remember the order or the circumstances surrounding them. My parents legally divorced a year or so before her death, simply so my dad could protect the farm in case she killed someone on the road. It broke both of their hearts, but I don’t remember specifically when it happened or the conversations around that time. I’ve visited her in rehab facilities throughout Kansas, sitting in small, cold rooms with other Sad Families of Alcoholics and Addicts as we talked through our garbage bag of feelings, and once flew to Arizona to a fancy, last-ditch facility that also treated celebrities (and made proclaimed sex addicts wear red tags around their necks) and served really good food. However, my concrete memories of these visits and conversations are muffled, remembered through a wall. If I hold onto a vivid detail, or even an entire experience from our childhood, there’s a good chance my brother won’t have any recollection, and vice versa. We rely on each other for the secrets we don’t know we keep.
However, I have certain, chronological memories of life’s blips. I know I received my first tattoo when I was 19, and the artist’s name was Robert. I remember the conversation we had about the shading, and how embarrassed I felt about pulling my gray sweatpants down so far to give him room to work. I remember the metallic taste that settled into my mouth and how my heart pounded when I called my dad to inform him that I was now unemployable, and worse, unheavenable.
Selective memory is survival, I think. To remember the sting of each heartbreak, every hope knocked over like a domino, would be unbearable. If I had vivid memories of the day my mom told me about her abuse—the events of her life that would eventually shatter all of ours—or picking her up from jail with my father, would my pain be any less? I can only hope that someday my crystal-clear recollection of that phone call—“Mom committed suicide” —or the ensuing funeral will become mercifully just as fuzzy.
It’s from God, I would wager, that merciful filtering. Maybe he allows some of those toughest memories to wisp upward to his own domain for safekeeping. When I find myself at those gates someday, anxious and eager as I peek through the crowd to spot my parents and other loved ones, will I be handed a ticket to comb through those events and determine which ones I’ll keep? Or, maybe those gates will just be slammed in my face. I guess it’s up to my dad and his prayers.