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The Stranger Who Got a Tattoo with Amy Krouse Rosenthal

In “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” Rosenthal mentioned a woman she met only once, at Family Tattoo in Chicago. That woman, Paulette Brooks, tells us her story.

Librarian Paulette Brooks (left) with author Amy Krouse Rosenthal after their tattoo excursion.   Photos: Courtesy of Paulette Brooks

The late Amy Krouse Rosenthal packed a lot into her final piece of published writing, ”You May Want to Marry My Husband,” a March essay in the New York Times released ten days before she passed away. First, the Chicago writer revealed that the cancer she battled for 18 months would soon end her life. Then, she pitched the world on her soon-to-be widower, Jason, vouching for his qualities as a man and partner.

In between, she mentioned a woman she had met only once, but had likely thought about often when she glanced down at her arm and saw the word “more” that had been there since last September, when the pair met at Family Tattoo (2125 W. Belmont Ave.) and walked out with matching ink designs.

Her body art double is Paulette Brooks, a longtime librarian in suburban Milwaukee and self-described “older” and “pretty conservative” person who heretofore managed to go 61 years without etching artwork on her extremities. “This is my first and only,” she says of the lowercase, typewriter text gracing the underside of her left wrist.

How she ended up with it still seems to surprise her, but is perhaps best understood by acknowledging Rosenthal’s penchant for coaxing connections with her readers.  

Last summer, Brooks came across Rosenthal’s latest memoir, Textbook. The title is a double play on words, as the work apes the format of an instructional workbook, complete with assignments that can be submitted to the author via text. Readers are asked to pass along photographs of rainbows, or share their thoughts during random bursts of inspiration.

Brooks decided to play along and complete every texting opportunity, including one where Rosenthal asked readers for matching tattoo ideas.

At first, she figured she had no shot: "There’s a time when you say, this is not going to happen. I’m going to submit my idea but that’s it.” A native Canadian, she originally proposed they both get leaves from their favorite trees, hers being the maple. But when she submitted the idea, an automated response came back directing her to type “more” should she wish to explain the concept further.

“I find it very hard to express ideas without elaborating. So I typed the word, more,” Brooks says.

This time she received a reply directly from Rosenthal, who wanted to hear more about “more.” More was the first word Amy spoke as an infant, as well as the theme of one of her children’s books, I Wish You More. It just seemed to fit.

Brooks, too, responded well to the revision. She drafted a shopping list of sorts that itemized everything she wanted to procure more of, and texted it back to the author.

More love

More family time

More books

More libraries

More faith

More miles

More pie

More hope

More Amy KR

Rosenthal loved it. So on August 30, they spoke by phone. That’s when Rosenthal revealed she had cancer and wanted to move quickly. Brooks understood.

“I told her that my mom had died of cancer when I was in my early 20s,” Brooks says. “And the reason I listed more miles is because I was walking a half-marathon in October to raise money for a cancer hospital in Toronto.”

A week later they were at Family Tattoo. Brooks says she chose her left arm in honor of her mother, who was left-handed, and as a nod to the vena amoris, a legendary vein that is said to run from left hand to the heart. It hurt, but it was quick.

Afterward, Rosenthal took Brooks to her house to show off their tattoos to their friends and family. There she met Jason, Rosenthal’s husband. She says Amy’s essay does him justice. “He’s a good-looking guy and he seemed very nice.”

Driving back to Wisconsin, a bemused Brooks wondered how to explain her uncharacteristic actions to her kids and husband. “This was a really crazy thing to do,” she says.

Yet, as months passed, she grew more comfortable with her random act of body modification.

“It was something that I could do for her, but I did it for myself as well, to say this is my watchword for my life,” she says. “Whatever situation I’m in, I can look down and say in this situation I think I need more patience with this person I’m talking to. Or I should pray more.”

That October, Brooks completed the half-marathon for cancer. She dedicated the fifth kilometer to Amy, and sent her a text from the finish line. It was the last she heard from her, until she saw her name in Rosenthal’s final essay.

“I wasn’t surprised what she wrote about resonated with people,” Brooks says of the piece, which was immensely popular and propelled her tattoo-mate to a new level of fame, just days before her death.

She adds, “If you read that, you wanted her to have more time.”

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