Memoir

My Childhood in the California Sun Gave Me Skin Cancer…and It Was Worth It

I wouldn’t trade those carefree beach days for anything.

My Childhood in the California Sun Gave Me Skin Cancer…and It Was Worth It

My doctor’s voice was tight and pinched on the other end of the phone. She’d told me she might call, but I hadn’t really expected her to. “It is cancer,” she said. “Very early stage. But it’s the less common and more concerning type. I’m sorry.”

After the call, the garble of good and bad news rattled in my brain, and I went to the mirror to look at the beige-ish smudge I’d lived with for a while. It wasn’t so different than the other spots I had on my hands and arms that seemed to pop up slyly overnight, little gifts left by the Age Fairy. But this mean deceiver was there, not even trying to hide, on my cheek. I was constantly trying to disguise it, though, with my Make Up Forever Full Cover Concealer. But I could never fully cover it, and I’d wanted it gone.

Looking at my reflection I wanted, more than ever, the creeper destroyed. I wondered just for a moment how this could have happened, though the obvious answer dawned on me right away as I gazed at my reflection in the mirror. What I saw there, what I remembered there, was a young girl, all rosy and golden from a day in the sun. And it wasn’t just the magical way my tawny skin made my hazel eyes pop, or how my otherwise un-notable hair took on a caramel sheen. It was the tender way those warm rays had penetrated all the way through me, to the parts that had needed them most. I wondered if I should be sorry for all of those days in the sun.

As a little girl growing up in a neat but plain suburb of Los Angeles in the ’50s and ’60s, my favorite thing to do was to go to the beach. I lived just down the street from a sprawling neighborhood park with a public pool and a multiple choice of playgrounds. Out the door of our small stuccoed bungalow, on a street of precisely ordered bungalows, was a patch of perennial green grass, and a sidewalk that linked me to the neighborhood kids. When I wasn’t in school, I was there, and had to be bribed indoors. It was hopscotch, roller skates or Barbies on the front lawn, all year long. None of that, though, compared to a day at the beach.

My mother and three-year-old me at a neighborhood pool in Los Angeles, 1958.

When I was lucky, my sister Jeanette, who was much older with kids of her own, would pull up in her ’57 Chevy Bel Air. She often filled in for my mother who waited tables at the local diner – my mother who probably asked the heavens daily, how could she parent a child alone at her age? Why did another marriage fail? Each morning before I left for school I would watch her tighten her thick black belt around her black skirt and white blouse. Then, together at night, we’d count nickels, dimes and quarters and put them in paper rolls, smiling at each other as the rolls piled up. We couldn’t help but feel a little rich.

I was aware that my friends had things I didn’t. While few of them had two-story homes or pools in their backyards, all of them had a father who lived with them, and most had a mother who met them with cookies when they arrived home from school. Others had pianos in the den or shiny station wagons in the driveway. Looking at my friends, it wasn’t that I saw those things they had as luxuries, but more as basic provisions. And like a young child does, in bits and pieces, I felt the lack of them. I was happy, though, in a way I never questioned, for my inheritance – of the sun and the water and air that was like a chilled effervescent soda. Somehow, I knew it as good fortune, and it made up for so much.

Most afternoons I came home to an empty house or a line-up of ever-changing women who looked after me while she worked. In this way, my life and my mother’s were so clearly different from those around us. And maybe I should have been sad, for her and for me. But because of where I woke up every morning my little life seemed just fine.

Huntington Beach, 1963.

My sister would load me in the back seat of the car where I was sandwiched between my niece and nephew and held in place by towels, umbrellas, sand toys and a bright turquoise ice chest. We’d hit the freeway with the windows down and a steady whoosh of warm air plastered bands of hair to my face. It didn’t matter, because I was on my way to everything I loved most of summer.

In the driver’s seat, my sister’s hair was high and undaunted and shockingly two toned. From the dashboard the A.M. radio piped in the drums and summer choir of Brian and Carl while I slapped my flip-flops against the bottom of my feet. Excited as I was I didn’t pepper her with, Are we almost there? What little I knew of the world, I knew I lived minutes from the water. I understood this singular thing as my birthright – the beach, the beach, the beach.

When the car came to a stop in the parking lot, I could see through the windshield to the sand and the water and the glistening rays of the sun pulsating off all of it. I’d scramble out the door and run a straight line for it. “Don’t forget the towels and suntan lotion,” my sister would call out, or, “You can’t go in yet. Wait for me,” like the second mother she was.

I’d spread out my polka-dot towel then grab the bottle of Coppertone. Then, the creamy lotion was not so much a protectant as it was a basting solution, designed to turn your skin a longed-for bronze. There were probably trace amounts of sunscreen in it, but the idea was to put it on and use some common sense. I was simply following directions as I dutifully rubbed it over the peach fuzz of my arms and legs.

At some point during those days – that layered on the canvas of my childhood in hues of blue-green and silver cream – the fragrance of that lotion seared my being. Even now, if I pick up its scent, I’m at Huntington Beach with dried sea salt on my little girl skin.

We’d spend hours splashing in the waves, building castles, eating sandy bologna sandwiches and staying until the sun went down. Later at home, peeling off my ruffled bathing suit, I resembled a candy cane with clearly defined red and white zones. It hurt, and for days my skin came off in snowflakes. But I never doubted it was worth it.

Years later, as a teenager, I drove myself to the ocean. I packed my Coppertone Deep Tanning Oil, and in a scant bikini I’d lather myself like a Sunday chicken. The shore was littered with us: girls and some guys too, splayed and shiny, constantly lifting our shades, peeling back our suits, looking for clues of a tan line. Then too, in between dips in the bracing water and naps on the sand, maybe I should have given thought to my lack of plans for anything but what was right in front of me. Everyone around me had big concerns: my mother with relentless pressure to make ends meet; my father, a seaman somewhere far out on that ocean, trying to earn a living. I was left to my own devices, and my vision extended only as far as where the water met the sky. That seemed compelling enough.

In time, and especially after I became a mother, I learned to consider the future and even embrace fret. I smeared my children in sunscreen from one end to the other. But I still felt the need to toast myself in summer. It was ingrained; my legs had to be worthy, my arms had to have glow. I’d long before left California for Texas, where the sun’s rays were not hypnotic but ferocious, and even though I tried to keep the whole family from burning, it seemed there was never enough vigilance.

Maybe it was one day, years later, as the dermatologist shined her magic lamp on my face, exposing a hidden map of spots, looking much like the surface of the moon, or maybe it was one spot in particular that I could see in any light, that finally made me lose my affection for amber. That spot, the doctor said, was fine. Until a while later when it wasn’t. Melanoma. A little shocked after the doctor called, I kept repeating the word in my head, thinking it rhymed with bella nonna. I might have drawn this crazy connection because I’d been studying Italian online, or it might have been because that was what I wanted so desperately. I just wanted to be a beautiful grandmother.

Lately, my collection of facial lotions has grown like the skyline of Manhattan, a landscape of desperation. And it all seems so pointless now that there is a scar – a line – that runs down my cheek the length of a pink hair ribbon. It looks like a three-year-old took a magic marker to me while I slept. So much for fine lines and wrinkles.

A recent photo of me at home in Austin.

I can guess how this happened. It’s life, and it was my life, and it was a long time ago. The world seemed less toxic then. But there were forces already at work. It wasn’t the sun or the ocean’s fault, and I’m glad I’m not, like in some Hollywood movie, given the option to trade it all away. They say some people live in glass houses, but I think we all do. We come into a world of light and shards, and we must make our way. We must follow the light, realizing, sometimes blessedly not fully knowing, there will be sharp, painful edges along the way. No matter how careful we are, though, none of us will get out of it untouched, or alive. But I can’t imagine a life without this contrast, this risk. It would be like the ocean with never a wave, or change of color in the sun, dull and flat.

I know that what I didn’t have as a child left a mark, unseen and easier to hide than the one on my face. Despite all that, it is the light – the days at the beach – that plays in my memory like music that brings me to a quiver, the warm air on my cold skin straight from the ocean, the steady roar of the waves crashing as I meld into the sand in a half sleep, the gritty food, the jumble of competing transistor radios, and, of course, the smell of Coppertone.