A Sun Burning Issue


Sunburns are not funny. They’re serious and dangerous. They hurt. And the story that was in our paper yesterday and today, about the dad who is in jail on a charge of first-degree criminal abuse for letting his 3-year-old son play outside without sunscreen is not in the least bit funny.

What’s funny is the thought that every parent who read that article put down the paper and said to whatever children were within earshot, “See! I told you it’s important to put on sunscreen. Even on a cloudy day you can get a sunburn. It doesn’t even have to be sunny. You can be in the South Pole in a body suit at midnight in the winter under a shade tree and wearing a hat and still, if you don’t listen to your mother and put on sunscreen, you’re gonna get in trouble. And worse yet, now I could get in trouble!”

I’ve been giving Mom’s Lecture on Sunscreen for 20 years. My own kids have heard it so many times, along with the accompanying story about their Aunt Pam who went to Wildwood, N.J., in 1970 and came home a lobster. And the story of my high school boyfriend who went to Wildwood, N.J., in 1978 and got so badly sunburned that his legs swelled up like elephants’ legs and he spent the next week of his Navy leave getting cortisone shots and wearing terry cloth shorts and slippers. Have you ever seen a guy in a disco in terry cloth shorts and slippers? That was him.

Because of those two incidents, I have never gotten a really bad sunburn. While my college roommates were laying on the roof of our dorm on tin foil mats with so much baby oil slathered on their skin that if they had accidentally bumped into one another, they would have slid right off the roof, I was putting on sunscreen before I walked to class. In jeans and long sleeves.

I had one bad scare. My husband and I went to Florida right after we got married. It was my first time at the ocean. We stopped at the mall on the way and bought brand new bright red and yellow sun-patterned beach towels and I spent the day marveling at the sun, the surf, the sand. After a full day on the beach we jumped in the car and headed for a gas station to change into dressy clothes to go to dinner. As he was driving, I looked over at him and saw that his skin was bright red.

“Oh my god! You’re totally sunburned!” I screamed. 

He looked over at me. “What!? Ahhh! So are you!”  We spent the next three miles aghast at the redness of our skin and the weirdness that it didn’t hurt yet.  I wisely said, “This is the calm before the storm. This is going to hurt so bad in about 15 minutes.” We actually considered driving straight to the ER. We drove the next few miles in silence, just waiting for the pain to begin. Then we stopped at the gas station restroom and the red dye from the new beach towels, which had transferred onto our skin, came rinsing right off. 

Then I grew up and bought a house with a swimming pool in the back yard. I spent entire summers giving Mom’s Lecture on Sunscreen to visitors, neighborhood kids, anyone who would listen. One guest, who will remain nameless but who may recognize herself when she reads this, said on the first day visiting me, “I just can’t see how something as beautiful as the sun can be bad for you.” On the second day visiting me, she came walking down the stairs like a human capital A, her thighs so badly burned if they rubbed together her screams would drown out the playful laughter of everyone else at the pool.  “Stupid sun,” I heard her growl.

Then I bought a house near the Atlantic Ocean and spent summers giving Mom’s Lecture on Sunscreen to visitors who went to the beach with us. Our French foreign exchange student pretended like he didn’t understand and lay down on a blanket and went to sleep. I kept waking him up to tell him he had to put on sunscreen and at least go into the ocean for a minute.  “Hey, I don’t know how you do it in France, but here in America, we enjoy our nature! Wake up, Frenchie! You can sleep when you go home!” He just shook his head and shrugged. We finally forced him to put on some SPF30 and go into the water, but it was too late. He stepped into the water and cut his foot on a broken shell. The next day he had a fever and I couldn’t tell if it was from a virus, the sunburn or the gash on his foot. I told him it was from the sunburn. “IN AMERICA we wear SUNSCREEN,” I enunciated.

We’re soon to move to Florida, where I’m expecting to bring back Mom’s Lecture on Sunscreen. We’ve got some exciting new technology now, so I’m thinking maybe I do a PowerPoint presentation or put something on YouTube.  I have some ideas for the chapter on “Don’t Forget the Tops of Your Feet and Your Eyelids” and the ever popular “Sunburns and Bald Guys: No You’re Right, It’s Not Fair.”