Sunscream

While my friend is away this week, I’ve been watering her beautiful gardens and taking care of her pool–a job I relish because the boys and I go swimming everyday.

Yesterday, however, I was there by myself. It was the perfect day: bright, crisp, a gentle breeze and a cloudless sky. As the sun danced off the water, I was drawn to lie on a raft and just float in the pool.

Why is it that in these moments I feel guilty? When we are at rest, and our mind is clear, we should commend ourselves, not chastise.  I pushed those feelings of guilt aside, and as I closed my eyes and the raft drifted aimlessly, my thoughts hearkened back to other memories.

Now if you’re normal (and I know at least two of you reading this are), then you might imagine my mind sailing back to other peaceful memories of floating, like my honeymoon in Napa or a trip to the Virgin Islands. No. Not me. My mind drifted back to childhood, to a memory that is seared in my mind’s eye. You see, whenever I’m on a float in a pool, alone, I end up thinking about a time when I was six years old.

Although it’s hard to believe, when I was very young, my family had a pool. An above-ground pool. A legit above-ground pool. The kind that is meant to stay up for several seasons. The kind that had a filter. It was the most extravagant toy of my youth. And one day, I remember walking out to the pool by myself and climbing the ladder and getting on a float and drifting off to sleep. The reason I remember this, the reason it is seared into my memory, is because I slept for so long that when I was awoken by my sister, I was badly sunburned. I spent the next week nursing a blistering burn–literally popping blistery bubbles all over my skin. If you’re grossed out, imagine how I felt? Sunburn_flickr_02 About a decade ago, I had to go to a dermatologist for a skin check. I had a “questionable mole”. The mole got the answer I was hoping for–not cancerous–but in the process, I received more insight. For some reason, I found the doctor’s questions humorous. As if the answers were obvious and she was teasing me.

Have you ever had a sunburn? Ahhh, yeah. I grew up in the seventies.

Have you ever had a blistering sunburn? You mean sunburnS, plural. Is there another kind? I basically shed more skin than a snake in my youth.

People who have had even one blistering sunburn before the age of fifteen have a fifty percent greater risk of WAHWAHWAHWAH…At that point, I had to block her out. One blistering sunburn? I was human bubble wrap back then–all seven of us kids were.

I left the doctor’s office feeling very scared.

**********************************

When my wife and I were dating, I remember telling her my pool/blister saga while on a road trip. We were driving in the car one summer afternoon. “I just wish we had sunscreen back then,” I said, finishing my story somewhat awkwardly. Here she was, getting a glimpse into my wacky upbringing.

She looked at me with a sad expression, “Honey, we did have sunscreen back then.”

NO! No we did not. There is no freakin’ way we had sunscreen.

“Really?” I said, trying to mask my anger.

“Unhunh,” she said with a nod, feeling bad about being the bearer of such news.

“But that doesn’t make sense! Why would my parents not use sunscreen? We could always afford the Noxema afterwards to cool our scorched bodies. My mom even joked about how rich she would be if she had stock in Noxema.”

I was incredulous. I thought about all the times we were left out to bake in the sun like little potatoes: The trips to Wildwood, the days swimming in the pool, every outdoor event of my youth, with nothing but my white Irish skin to fight off the evil sun’s rays. And this was before the era of willfully laying out in lounge chairs with tin foil and baby oil.

What were we thinking back then? What!?

Sweetie,” Pam said to me, trying to draw me back from the past, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just pretty messed up, you know?”

“You know what’s more messed up?” she said.

I did not.

“What?”

“The fact that you were in a pool by yourself at the age of six. How could you be out there so long by yourself?”

Oh. My. God. I had never thought of that! In all the times I’d thought of that event, it was the sunburn that made me mad. I couldn’t even claim I was a good swimmer. I even failed swimming lessons. (More on that saga here ).

**********************

And now, a decade and a half later, I think about how different my children’s experiences are. Christ, we put sunscreen on them if they’re coming to the food store with us. We sit outside the bathroom as they take a shower in case the water turns hot or they need a fluffier towel.

So different from my own experience as a kid. So, so different.

Then, the other day, Pam tells me that the FDA just announced that kids should no longer use spray-on sunscreen as they are inhaling too much of the fumes. Cry me a river, I think. When I was their age I was inhaling second-hand smoke. Hell, I had even tried a few cigarettes by their age.

Just sayin’.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go water my friend’s garden. And not to worry, I’ve got SPF 50 on this bald head of mine.

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14 comments

  1. Personally, and without any scientific evidence to back it up, my belief is that it is the chemicals in sun screen that are behind the increase in skin cancer. To the extent there really is such an increase. Much like eggs were causing heart attacks for years and now we learn that eating eggs is good for you, I think we’ll find out in the years ahead that sun screen isn’t actually the panacea it’s made out to be.

    Isn’t the fear of a sun burn, skin cancer, and the need to constantly spray it down, one of the worst things about having a bald head? It is this time of year when I think about letting my hair grow again. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable a sun burn on my head would be.

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  2. Michael I have been sitting here rereading some of your posts. This one brought me back so many memories of my childhood. We too were fried to a crispy piece of bacon as we hoed in my grandfathers fields every summer of my youth. I literally slept on the end of the rows as my mom and grandma hoed when I was a baby.
    As I was reading Swim Lessons: Take Two I remember falling in love with this cousin of my mom’s named Larry when I was five years old. He was my moms age and so funny. He never told my sisters and me to go in the other room and talked to us like we were real people. He had the most beautiful brush cut hair do and his laugh was like I had never heard. As an adult I found out he was an illegitimate brother to one of the stepfathers that abused my sisters and I when we were little. Sometimes my heart breaks when I think of that poor little girl but I sure love the blessings that her womb gives me now so I guess it was all worth it. Knowing that my grandkids have parents that love them so makes me so proud. You are by far my favorite blogger.

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    1. Liz, this comment brought tears to my eyes. The high compliment you pay me is one reason, but much more important is the beauty of your own words here: Sometimes my heart breaks when I think of that poor little girl but I sure love the blessings that her womb gives me now so I guess it was all worth it. Wow. There is an entire book in this one reply. Please continue your own journey of writing. You have so much to say, and you say it so uniquely–and others need to hear it!! Thanks for being such a strong support to me. I hope you are having a wonderful summer. Michael

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  3. I’m always amazed how closely our experiences were the same. I only recently had the same conversation about sunscreen. I don’t remember anything about sunscreen back then, anyone putting it on me, themselves, saying to bring it.

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  4. I so enjoy swapping childhood stories with you, as yours just save me from writing my own. I don’t know where on Earth or by whom Pam was raised, but in my childhood there was no such thing as sunscreen. I sometimes saw it on shelves at the market or lying on the sand at the beach, though. We kids just burned and bubbled and peeled better than school glue on skin.

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  5. Oh my gosh, the seventies were a peak time to be a child I think! Never wearing a seatbelt or sunscreen, running off to play in the street until dark, looking out for each other and creating your own fun. Things are easier and safer for kids now, but there is a trade off – freedom! The opportunity to assess risks, troubleshoot situations, make your best choices and build resilience….those things are important too! Luckily we both lived to tell the tale. 🙂

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  6. I’m with ya. I have the freckles to evidence the several cases of sun burn plus one too many heat stroke incidents. I remember Coppertone sun tan OIL to fry baby! Or sun TAN LOTION lotion in 4, 8 or 15. Not this sun screen SPF 30 50, 70. Much smarter to use it. Enjoy your summer and safe swimming.

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