Milly Lally wills the energy to raise her voice above the deafening rattle of the wheelchair van.
“Am I being crazy?” she asks her hospice aide, Terry Robertson, whom Lally calls “Pat” or “Patty” because that’s what Lally thinks she looks like.
The two women have just departed NewMark Care Center north of the Missouri River and are making the half-hour bumpy jaunt to the West Bottoms so 83-year-old Lally can receive her first tattoo.
The appointment is a gift from Crossroads Hospice, designed to fulfill a last wish. Lally, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, keeps her oxygen handy on this warm September day. Excitement squashes fatigue as she points to spots where she remembers restaurants and landmarks from years ago. She’s giddy about her adventure across the city and the idea that she is going through with the permanent Celtic cross imprint, which will mark her Irish heritage and stamp a constant connection to her 23-year-old granddaughter.
The tattoo idea originated from a conversation between Lally and a NewMark staff member.
Her initial response was tongue-in-cheek.
“Yeah, that’s something I always wanted,” Lally said wryly.
But the idea grew on her.
“Here’s the inspiration,” Lally said, as a turquoise-painted nail points to the photograph of a young woman framed on a small table near her bed.
“Stephanie was my guiding light,” she said. “We were an awful lot alike.”
Stephanie would call her grandmother after work. The two watched movies, looked at Lally’s old photos and talked about Lally’s Irish heritage. Stephanie fixed Lally’s hair and messed with her flipped collar, as is Lally’s style.
“I was her grandma, but I was also her friend,” Lally said.
Stephanie had admired Lally’s Claddagh ring, a symbolic piece of Irish jewelry with hands holding a heart and a crown, and the Celtic cross pendant Lally’s friend gave her two decades ago that hung around Lally’s neck.
“I’m a proud Irish girl from Shawnee,” Lally said, showing a photo of her standing in front of Galway Bay during a trip to Ireland. That trip was Lally’s mother’s dream, and she got to live it.
Lally always intended to give Stephanie her Claddagh ring and Celtic cross necklace.
But Stephanie went first.
It was a Saturday about 8 p.m. in November 2007 when Stephanie Gray misjudged a light at an intersection at 75th Street and Interstate 35 in Overland Park. Her car collided with another car, and her body hit the steering wheel. Her injuries damaged internal organs and took her life at just 23.
“It devastated the whole family,” said Stephanie’s father, Steve Gray.
Stephanie was energetic and talkative, “just the coolest girl,” he said. She was about to start a job at Gap in the Legends and had her sights on college.
Stephanie lived with her aunt Gail Mayberger while she was home-schooled and then while she attended Outreach Christian School in Avondale.
“She used to always drive around with me, and we’d play games in the car,” Mayberger said. “Sometimes I’d be driving and look over at her and she’d just be staring, and then she would break out laughing. I think she just felt a deep connection with me.”
Mayberger helped write a series of patriotic vignettes for Stephanie’s high school called “Magistrate Milly,” a 1700s version of Judge Judy. Stephanie wore the judge’s robe and would ad lib lines, leaving everyone laughing.
“She just lit up the stage,” Mayberger said.
When Stephanie died, Lally said goodbye with the Claddagh token Stephanie had always admired.
“As she lay in the casket, I slipped the ring on her finger, but I couldn’t part with the Celtic cross,” she said. “I had told her that one day she would have it, but little did I know she would go first.”
After the devastating death, Lally ordered Claddagh rings for all of her nieces and great nieces and handed them out by surprise. She wanted to give them what she couldn’t give Stephanie in life.
Lally’s childhood home on 55th Street in Shawnee still stands.
As a girl, her Irish father filled her head with vivid tales as she lay on a cot on the front porch on summer nights.
“I’d see a falling star and it was a soul going to heaven, and then he would make up stories about the different locations of the stars and planets,” she reminisced.
Her father died when she was 11. He went to work one day and had a heart attack. Her mother became a single parent and ran a bake shop for a plant in Kansas City, Kan.
She attended a St. Joseph grade school and high school in Shawnee and received a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica, then a women-only college run by Benedictine nuns. She stayed a year and then worked in doctors’ offices, married at 20 and had her children, two sons and a daughter. Two other daughters died as infants.
“I loved raising my family, and one of my favorite things to do was giving (the babies) baths,” she said. “I would polish their little white shoes and put them in the window while they napped.”
Her faith was tested when she was 35 and received bad news after twisting a knee dancing. She had bone cancer. Doctors used the fibula from her left leg to graft bone for the tibia in the right leg, where the cancer was. She stared at a crucifix before signing surgery consent papers and asked Jesus to protect her.
Lally later divorced and changed her name back to her maiden Lally afterward.
She took on new jobs and followed her daughter to the East Coast and lived in Princeton, N.J., for a dozen years. The bustle of New York City often called her to dinner and theater.
She worked for an airline and checked pilots’ logbooks in a gig for oil tycoon Leon Hess and helped market HMO insurance plans.
Over the years, osteoporosis weakened her bones, causing many breaks that she learned to endure with her strong spirit. Now, the slow, progressive COPD easily takes her breath away.
The sunlight that reflects from the nursing home’s white linoleum creates shadowy asphalt puddles beside West Bottoms warehouse brick.
A sense of soul mixes the area’s historic past and its present, tagged with graffiti and etched with railroad tracks that provide a soundtrack. This is home to antique and vintage shops where the old find a hipper rebirth.
At night, the industrial neighborhood harbors a train’s rumble and fast-moving headlights causing a look back over the shoulder as if walking through Halloween haunted houses. The morning light reveals hints of storied establishments like the restaurant, the Golden Ox, and newer culinary endeavors such as Amigoni Vineyard and Winery.
Heather Menteer is a tattoo artist at the West Bottoms Art Society. It’s a tattoo studio attached to an art gallery that displays artists’ work in many different mediums with loft space above. Tattoos are by appointment, but the gallery is open to the public six days a week. A recent exhibit was “Sons and Daughter of Greece” and featured pieces influenced from Greek mythology.
Menteer’s and owner Deuce Sharbonda’s own works, in bright colors, hang framed on the walls. Inside are bright white walls that accentuate the art. A couch is in the nearby corner for consultation. It’s remarkably minimal except for the art neatly displayed on the walls.
Menteer, 27, grew up in Turney, Mo. She spent her childhood drawing and coloring and moved to the city as a teenager and then started traveling and working in tattoo studios. She settled in Kansas City four years ago and does other artwork, sometimes commissioned, on the side.
One of Menteer’s friends is a hospice nurse and asked if she might be up for the task.
“She said, ‘Hey, you want to tattoo some old lady?’” Menteer recalled.
And Menteer said yes when she heard the circumstances.
“That’s awesome. Totally,” she said. “There are not a lot of people that old who are that open-minded. It was a cool request.”
Reasons for going under the needle are individual. Tattoos often are used to mark a certain moment. In some religions and cultures, the emotional and physical stress of getting a tattoo are all part of the process. The ritual can also shut a door or bring closure to a life experience.
“In a lot of cultures, it’s not so much for decoration as the spiritual experience,” Menteer said.
But it’s also an art form that can have a deeper, or lighter, meaning.
“If I do a tattoo in memory of someone’s loved one, or over a mastectomy, and turn something ugly into something beautiful, then that’s why I do my job,” she said. “But some of my favorite tattoos are random and silly and remind me not to take things so seriously.”
It’s late morning when the van parks at the tattoo studio on Wyoming Street.
“It was not my impression at all about tattoo parlors,” Lally says of what she describes as “a nice, clean place.”
As Menteer prepares and talks to Lally about the tattoo, the patient and her hospice entourage — a nurse, a social worker, a chaplain and an aide — sip Wendy’s chocolate Frosty milkshakes. Lally had requested the drinks as an alternative when someone asked if she would need whiskey to brave the needling.
Menteer usually sets up a consultation with the clients, but she and Lally couldn’t have that initial meeting since Lally is at the care center.
Menteer makes a photocopy of Lally’s Celtic necklace and references the image while she sketches. Lally wants to include kelly green and seeks advice about other colors.
Before they start, Lally asks for a kiss from her chaplain, and Jim Robinson obliges with a peck on the forehead.
Robertson grips Lally’s hand as she lies on the table.
Lally chooses to place her tattoo over her cancer scar on her leg.
Menteer inserts the needles in the skin just enough without blowing the color underneath the skin.
The half-dollar-sized tattoo is finished 30 minutes later.
Lally reaches for Menteer and puts her arms around her.
“Thank you,” she says.
Afterward, Lally feels her connection to granddaughter has been strengthened with the symbolic imprint.
“I just knew that Stephanie was there with us, and she was excited,” Lally says.
The mother of three, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of many gazes at the impression on the van ride back to NewMark. She enters with her pant leg rolled up. Friends greet her and want to see the “tattoo girl.” She shows it to a few and then covers it.
“I’ll do a grand unveiling tomorrow,” she says later.
The woman who made her sons keep their hair short and insisted her children dress like they stepped out of a catalog beams when showing off her new tattoo. She gets a kick out of people’s reactions, especially of those who know her best. It was shocking for her children in contrast with the strict standards their mother had for them.
Lally was adamant that her son, Steve Gray, wear wool pants to Mass every Sunday.
“They itched, but that was the fashion,” he recalled. “One time I wore my pajama pants underneath so they wouldn’t itch, but the pajamas stuck out. Mom took me out of the church and had me take the pajamas off and put the pants back on.”
Lally’s daughter, Mayberger, couldn’t get away with buying a bikini, and a tattoo would have been out of the question.
Once Mayberger bought a two-piece brown-and-white tankini because she thought it was cute and covered enough of her midsection that her mom might approve.
“She said, ‘That’s immodest,’ and I had to walk back to Prairie Village Shopping Center and return it,” Mayberger said.
Both Gray and Mayberger understood, though, when Lally explained that she wanted the tattoo as a way to keep Stephanie and her fun-loving spirit with her at all times. That made sense to them.
“It’s out of character for me,” acknowledged Lally. “If I could not have put some spiritual meaning with it, it would not have happened.”
On a crisp November evening, Lally’s hair swoops in a side ponytail with a small comb to keep it neatly in place above her silver hoop earrings. A soft, pink zip-up hoodie hangs from her shoulders, and she’s wearing New Balance tennis shoes over her gray and navy argyle socks covering the tattoo she has meticulously moistened with Cetaphil lotion.
A low light creates a comfortable feel on her side of the nursing home room, which she has cordoned off with a sliding curtain.
A wooden cross is posted above her bed, a Vanity Fair peeking out from her sitting chair. A stuffed bunny named George with a ribbon adorning its neck is lying on the bed.
Her daughter is visiting tonight. Mayberger has returned with clean laundry. She tidies the place and sits down for a visit.
Lally asks about getting the Bravo channel in her room so she can stay up on what the channel describes as “best in food, fashion, beauty, design and pop culture.”
“I don’t know if individuals can have different plans,” Mayberger tells her mom.
The conversation shifts to Lally’s sense of style and her youthful ways. Mayberger had stopped by a few days ago and found Lally in pigtails.
Style and fashion have been Lally’s thing since she was young and saved her money to buy clothes and shoes at Adler’s or Harzfeld’s on Petticoat Lane in downtown Kansas City.
Her eyes brighten with nostalgia about a purple full-length double-breasted coat with big white pearly buttons and a belt in the back she bought when she was 12.
Lally made Mayberger’s prom dress from white linen with a coffee-colored top embossed with flowers. The ensemble included velvet ribbon and a cape. One of Mayberger’s friend’s daughters borrowed the timeless dress two decades later.
Lally orchestrates the style details in her life — from her hairstyle to the low lighting to framed wall hangings that exude a sense of personal style in her nursing home room.
“She’s 83, but she definitely doesn’t look it and she’s different from most older people in how she acts,” said hospice aide Robertson. Lally insists Robertson take her time while helping her get ready.
“She’s very concerned with how she looks,” Robertson said.
Chaplain Robinson can’t walk into the building without Lally waving to him for a chat. She also calls him “Steve” because he doesn’t look like a “Jim” to her.
A tattoo is Lally’s latest adventure, but perhaps not her last.
“I know Stephanie is up there saying all the while, ‘Grandma, you’re so silly,’” Lally says. “I’m not at the end of the rainbow yet. There’s still some color.”