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sun damage by anton disclafani

I had the privilege of meeting Anton DiSclafani at a luncheon celebrating her upcoming novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, in New York a few months ago. The book is a real treat, and I’m excited to be heading back to New York today for Book Expo America, where I will once again get to see Anton. I will be doing a Q&A with her closer to her publication date next month but it seemed fitting, in the meantime, to post this piece she wrote about her mother’s obsession with the sun and how it effected her own life.

The Florida summers of my childhood meant heat:  it came, early, in May, and stayed until September.  With the heat came a marked uptick in my mother’s anti-sun vigilance.  She had made it her mission early in my and my sister’s lives to protect us, at all costs, from the damaging effects of the sun.

Being wary of the sun was a year-long endeavor, because harmful UV rays penetrated cloud cover, but the summer was when the sun was most dangerous.  My sister and I couldn’t play outside between the hours of 10 AM and 3 PM, when the sun was at its peak.  We were coated with sunscreen whenever we left the house, and then that sunscreen was reapplied on a precise schedule.  The sunscreen was waterproof, of course, and though now that trait seems, if not banal, certainly not surprising, this was the 80s, when sunscreen, let alone the waterproof variety, was still a little bit of a novelty.  She ordered our sunscreen from a special catalog devoted to sun-proof products; we wore special long-sleeved t-shirts that were designed to block the heat, ordered from the same catalog.

My mother was not particularly protective of us in other arenas.  My sister and I both rode horses, ate an appropriate amount of junk food, and disappeared for hours with the neighborhood kids.  But the sun, and its palpable effects – Skin cancer! Wrinkles! – provoked my mother’s concern.

I don’t remember the heat so much as my mother’s war against it. It snowed in some places, it rained in some places, and in Florida the sun was a weapon.  I knew children who’d received first-degree burns from playing outside without sunscreen.  While I certainly didn’t want to burn my skin, it is impossible for a child to be so long-sighted that the twin fears of skin cancer and premature wrinkles seem real.  “We don’t want wrinkles,” my sister and I used to say, long before we understood what a wrinkle was, or that there could exist such a time and place that we would have them.

But we understood that the sun was bad, and there was no pleasure to be taken from it.  In middle school I watched my friends affix stickers to their flat stomachs and then peel them off after the sun had turned the surrounding skin darker; it was a marvel, the contrast between light and dark, between—for me—damaged and undamaged.  In high school my sun-worshipping friends graduated to tanning beds, and I graduated to wide-brimmed, floppy hats and big sunglasses.  Though for many years my family lived a stone’s throw from the beach, I can count on one hand the times we went.

My mother’s vigilance sprang from protectiveness, of course, and that protectiveness sprang from her desire to be a different kind of parent than her mother had been.  My mother’s father left his family when my mother was eleven years old, and she would spend the rest of her adolescence fending for herself, as my grandmother supported her children with a string of low-paying, thankless jobs.  And what did my mother do, left to her own devices?  She and her high school friend climbed to the top of her apartment building in Houston, coated themselves with baby oil and baked in the sun for hours, until blisters appeared.  “Everybody did it,” my mom says. “We didn’t know.  If only we knew.”

By my mother’s own admission, nobody knew:  had her family remained intact, it is still likely she would have tanned dangerously.  But in the alternate history of my mother’s childhood, her father never leaves, and since they live in a house, there is no roof that brings my mother and her friend closer to the sun.  If only we knew.  I know.

My mother’s indoctrination worked:  as an adult, I will do almost anything to avoid the sun in the summer, traversing the campus through a series of buildings instead of using the sidewalks, choosing the aisle seat on a plane so I don’t have to fend off the sun’s glare, donning a ridiculously wide-brimmed hat when I leave my apartment.  My mother taught us to fear the sun, and so I do. It was a simple lesson, one that I received easily, more easily than my sister, who loves to be outdoors on a hot day, who sometimes even lays out by the pool and tans her legs.

And yet:  I can imagine myself on top of my mother’s apartment building, a sheet of foil beneath my chin to harness the sun; the slippery feel of baby oil coating me like a second skin; the sun baking me to a lovely, damaged shade of brown.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.com.

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