Personal Journey: Very surprising cultural markings

The writer and daughter Arielle in front of Sydney Opera House. Mother discovered aborigines, and a child's adulthood.
The writer and daughter Arielle in front of Sydney Opera House. Mother discovered aborigines, and a child's adulthood.
Posted: April 15, 2013

My 20-year-old daughter Arielle had just spent five months studying in Brisbane and touring Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand when I joined her in Sydney. Upon my arrival, she shared everything she loved about the land down under - friendly Aussies, beautiful beaches, and outdoor activities. She'd been surfing, bungee-jumping, and skydiving. I assured her that none of those were on my bucket list. "How about the bridge climb?" she asked.

I wanted to say yes, but the thought of scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge's arch, nearly 500 feet above the water, was terrifying.

Instead of extreme adventures, we planned a tour of the Opera House, sunbathing at Bondi Beach, shopping at outdoor markets, and a day trip to the Blue Mountains and wildlife preserve.

Our first stop on the Blue Mountains tour was an aboriginal art and culture center. Robert, a tribal elder dressed in a loincloth and zip-up sweatshirt with the center's logo, greeted us at the entrance. He told us that the white stripes and circles painted on his torso and limbs represented spiritual themes and his social position. He talked about his people's oneness with nature. "The trees are my cousins, and the animals and birds are my aunts and uncles," he said. Arielle and I hung on his every word. As he explained the legend of the Three Sisters rock formation, which we'd be visiting later, I got a glimpse of Arielle's own body marking. She was picking at her bottom lip, when a line of letters on the wet, pink flesh of her inner lip appeared.

My jaw dropped. "What's that?" I asked.

"Huh? I don't know what you're talking about," she said.

"I saw a tattoo inside your mouth!"

"It's not a tattoo. It's henna, Mom!"

"Henna is brown. That's black ink. I'm not stupid."

"You weren't supposed to see it! Are you going to cry? You look upset."

"I'm just shocked. You've talked about piercings, but never a tattoo."

I asked her to show it to me, but she refused.

"Did you get it in Bangkok?" I asked. Scenes from The Hangover Part II played in my head.

"No, I got it in Melbourne," she said.

"At least tell me what it says."

"It says 'We Lived.' So I have a way of remembering all the amazing things I did when I was here."

"Oh," I said.

By the time we arrived at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, I had put the tattoo out of my mind, so as not to spoil a nice day. In the koala sanctuary, we got to pet a koala and have our pictures taken with it. I put my hand in the animal's thick fur, and felt like I was 8 years old again. Arielle was giddy, too, hand-feeding kangaroos and following the mamas around to get a glimpse of their joeys. It took me back to a half-dozen trips to the Philadelphia Zoo when she was a toddler. But there in Australia, I looked at her tanned 5-foot-9 body and saw an adult. She was old enough to travel the world on her own.

I realized then that my daughter had journeyed farther and wider than I had at her age, and not because she was given more opportunities. I passed up studying abroad during my junior year to be close to my longtime boyfriend. Instead of having my own snapshots and memories, I listened to friends' accounts of country-hopping through Europe and meeting sexy Spaniards and Englishmen.

Now, I'm working on becoming more daring. For one thing, I traveled halfway around the world, alone, to meet up with my daughter. She, on the other hand, is truly adventurous. It says so right in her mouth.

Melissa Sodowick writes from Washington Crossing.

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