In the summer of 1974, I was working in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn in Fall River, Mass. I had graduated from high school and was looking forward to starting my freshman year at Providence College.

I enjoyed my job as “salad girl,” which included assembling salads and desserts. The camaraderie among the kitchen crew was fun, and the work was reasonably creative. It sure beat packing boxes of fried chicken at KFC.

Then, one day, after trolling around shopping with my friends, I noticed my feet were swollen. I chalked it up to too much walking. That night, I was going to babysit two little boys. When their mother, a nurse, came to pick me up, I mentioned my feet to her. “That’s hives,” she said.

I wasn’t too worried. In his youth, my father had been an asthmatic, and also suffered from hives. He still stayed away from tomatoes and bananas, which he had been allergic to in the past. Hives were not life-threatening.

Little did I know that I was about to embark on four years of misery, with allergies to acidic foods like tomatoes, oranges and strawberries.

I didn’t have to be a psychiatrist to realize what was going on. Even then, I understood that I was stressed about going to college, so I developed allergies to the foods I was handling in the kitchen. We didn’t wear gloves in those days, and I was spending several hours a day putting tomatoes on lettuce and strawberries on cheesecake.


This is why I remember the period between high school and college as “the best of times and the worst of times.” Who knew you could make yourself a nervous wreck while being happy?

But that’s a common situation for people setting off on new adventures. It’s being excited and scared at the same time.

I couldn’t wait to go to college. My overprotective parents wanted me to commute, but I was determined to live on campus. I wrote a sort of position paper titled, “Why I Should Live Away at College.” Then, to overrule their secondary concern about expenses, I found a solid liberal arts college with an inviting campus and a tuition that wouldn’t break the budget. It was run by Dominican friars. My uncle, my father’s brother, had graduated from PC in the 1940s. Best of all — from my parents’ point of view — the dorms were strictly segregated by sex, and romantic overnight visits were prohibited.

I would only be 15 miles away from home.

They caved. Ours was a close-knit family, and I enjoyed doing things with my parents, even as a teenager. But there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to leave the nest and try my independence.

Still, uncertainties loomed. We would be assigned roommates by alphabetical order. Who was I going to end up with? Would I make any friends? Suppose I got homesick? What was the workload going to be like? What kind of work-study job would I be able to get? Suppose I flunked out?


Now, added to my worries: hives. They weren’t little pimply hives that could be hidden under a shirtsleeve. A lip would puff up grotesquely. An eye swelled shut. My fingers looked like I was suffering from advanced arthritis.

The allergist poked me in the back and proclaimed me allergic to dogs, cats, dust, tree pollen … the list was quite extensive. There was nothing to treat it but to stay away from the foods that seemed to be bothering me, as well as the rest of the world. No Benadryl. If I was too swollen to appear in public, I stayed home and put ice on my hives, even though it didn’t really help.

Despite this setback, I did make friends at college, and I didn’t flunk out. PC had only recently gone co-ed, and a sudden surge of girls meant I had two roommates. One was a messy hockey player who piled all her equipment in a corner. We did not ever room together again.

Though I loved my freedom, I also liked it when my parents drove up to Providence on Wednesdays, which my father had off, to take me to Howard Johnson’s for breakfast. I was like a tween who wants to wear lipstick but also wants to carry her stuffed rabbit everywhere.

It’s a wonderful time, the summer between high school and college. Well, as long as you don’t hang around too many strawberries.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected]

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