How does a woman from a small town in Iowa go from being a faculty event planner to a badass tattooed retiree? If you talk to Helen Lambin, it all makes perfect sense.
Things started when, despondently, she was turning 75: Lambin decided to shake things up with one small tattoo; a peace daisy. Soon afterward, she got a baby dolphin, but then thought that it should have a mother, so the third tattoo happened. Then she decided to get a little pink rabbit in memory of her beloved husband who, before he died in January 1996, used to call her “Bunny.”
“Things just sort of spiraled.” she laughs. “They are art; the difference is the canvas is moving.”
Five years later, Lambin’s body is a virtual wonderland of more than 50 tattoos.
A widow and grandmother, Lambin loves how her tats help connect her to people, especially younger people, and challenge whatever limitations and stereotypes others might try to impose on her.
We spoke with the inked rebel over the phone from her home in Chicago and even got a tip for the the tattoo that we might get one day: “Start with a small one. That way you know it will be over soon!”
How old are you – and how old do you feel?
I’m 80. For decades I managed to convince myself that I was ten years younger, so it was a real shock to find out that I wasn’t. How old do I feel? Ordinarily, 24, but let’s say 39.
How do people react to your tattoos?
I did not anticipate the extent to which my tattoos are a bridge to others. People can be really hard on teenagers and make collective judgments, but I’ll be walking down the street and kids will stop me and say, “nice ink,” and then we talk. Some want to get tattoos, and most are too young, which I point out to them. It’s great because it’s a connection across, race, age, ethnicity and gender; it’s a vast bridge that I like.
There tends to be this stereotype that old people are characters in a Victorian novel who sit in little chairs and watch the dance. When you get to my age, many of my contacts are gone, so this is nice because it opens up the world. My tattoos have enriched my life.
What do you do for fun?
I’ve been taking harmonica lessons and I’m trying to learn Spanish again. I love the language. It’s important to do new things. My husband was a psychologist and he said that as you get older it’s important to keep doing things, because once you stop you may not do it again. It’s easy to fall into the trap, “Oh, I’m not going to leave the house today; I’m too tired.” So I keep doing things as long as I am able. I am also a writer; I write about religion and about loss and transition, and I wrote a prayer book, but you’ve got to understand that these are from the point of an eccentric person, not traditional at all, as you might imagine!
How has technology figured in your life?
I have a cellphone, but I only use it when I go out. I use Facebook on occasion. I absolutely love Google for finding things out, and I enjoy email for staying in touch with my daughter, who lives in Hong Kong. I’m freelance writer, and writing on a computer, compared to a typewriter, is marvelous.
What advice would you give to people who are afraid of aging?
Good question. When I hit 80, I was horrified! I was shocked that 80 somehow followed 79. I’m still recovering, but what I would say is be present in the moment. This is a solid piece of advice because we are always looking ahead or back. We lose track of this day, this moment, this hour, so I am trying to be present in the moment. I am working on this; it is not something I have mastered. Try to live the days you do have by making the most of them.
What does “aging with attitude” mean to you?
I love the term; it’s all about having a kind of humorous defiance and a refusal to be patronized. Don’t mess around with a tattooed old lady. I was on the on the L train and a guy said to me, “Wow, you are really badass!” I laughed, “Why, thank you, how nice of you to say!”