“If you want a place in the sun, you’ve got to put up with a few blisters.”

— Pauline Phillips.

True story: I rubbed sun tan oil on Mary O’Hara’s back just before she went into the convent. It was on a beach in Connecticut in the summer of 1957, a month before she entered the order. I’m concerned now that it was just baby oil, designed to burn and hopefully turn one’s skin into a swell tan, and it certainly wasn’t a sun block.

It was hardly my fault. No one thought of blocking the sun in those days. We wanted sun. We worshiped sun. Sun was God. It made plants grow. It made us tan. Cloudy days were yucky. Our happiness was based on a sunny day, and to be perfectly happy, blissfully happy, we had to be tan!

Why Mary, who was very Irish with red hair, pale skin and blue eyes, wanted a tan when she was about to go into the convent of a cloistered order and forever be clothed from head to toe, confused me, but I didn’t question it. I thought I was in love, even though we had only kissed twice that summer, and both pecks were short and simple.

So just letting me rub her back was a big deal for me. It was just her upper back, you understand. The backs of her legs were out of bounds. I knew even as an altar boy of 10 that to rub the backs of a sister’s legs, even a novice, even a pre-novice who was still conflicted about being a novice at all, would send a boy plummeting to hell.

I put on a lot of the baby oil she gave me and kept rubbing even when she fell asleep. On the train back to the city, her burn was so bad she had to sit up straight the whole way.

I think about Mary today in light of the flood of bad news about what we once thought was cool and sexy. To be tan today is still desirable, but cloaked with anxiety.

Any dermatologist will tell you that a tan means you’ve actually ruined your skin. You may look pretty, handsome, alluring, desirable and sexy, but you’ve ruined your skin.

Of course, as one of comedian Billy Crystal’s characters is fond of saying, “It’s better to look good than feel good.”

Amen to that.

My heroes all had tans. It came with being young and sexy.

Steve McQueen had a great tan. Jack Kennedy, even though he was constantly ill with myriad health problems and living on various pills and injections, always had a gorgeous tan. The great singer Al Jolson had the best tan in Hollywood the day he died of cancer. Even the car wash guys had tans.

I remember that Fidel Castro almost never had a tan. Who wanted to look like Castro?

At the Catholic boys’ school I attended for a spell, we were all pasty and pale. Even our Jesuit teachers were pasty and pale. At my public high school, everyone came back in September with a tan except for Warren. Warren was the smartest guy in my junior class. He spent the entire summer in the Michigan Avenue library. Very smart.

Summer in St. Louis is Benghazi hot, and that library had big stand-up black fans in every room.

Those days are gone. The sun, celebrated in thousands of songs, such as ” Walk on the Sunny Side” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” is now the enemy. It’s makes us happy when it comes up each day, but by 11 o’clock it turns into Godzilla, ready to give us terrible skin cancers.

I write this in memory of the sweet Mary O’Hara, who became Sister Someone and broke my heart. That was her real name, and I use it here because it was such a beautiful Irish name, and her sweet mother and father are now long dead. I doubt that the cloistered convent has Wi-Fi or a subscription to this paper, but Mary wouldn’t mind anyway. She thought I was a wonderful writer, and she’d be happy to know that I finally made it into print.

I’m sorry about that burn, Mary, and you’ll be happy to know that each time I think about rubbing your back, I say 10 Hail Marys and six Our Fathers.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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