Opinion

Summertime, when the living is ugly

I have poison ivy across my arms and legs and even on my feet. Now, I’m old enough to say, “That reminds me of a time...” It reminds me of a summer back in the early 1980s when I worked at a part-time factory job — back when kids could get jobs in factories.

My brother looked at me coming home from work each day covered in soot and proclaimed it, “Your Ugly Summer.”

The factory made heating elements for stoves, and my job was to put the elements into the furnace.

I wore that acquired soot like a badge of honor — the same way I now wear pink calamine lotion, in restaurants, airports, church. It goes where I go.

I had no intention of being pink. In fact, I had no intention of getting poison ivy. I just couldn’t resist the lure of yanking it off our barn.

I had gone to Michigan to care for my ailing sister, and there it was, just hanging from that beautiful old 1871 structure.

Pulling it down was like watching a clown car unload, or watching a magician pull scarves out of a shirt sleeve.

It just kept coming and coming. I just kept pulling and pulling.

I can’t even tell you how much fun it was and satisfying, too.

I had a “Bring ’er on,” attitude stemming from the fact that I believed I couldn’t get poison ivy, that I was immune.

The branches would break and leak all that toxic urishol oil over my gloves and across my arms, and I held fast to my belief that I was tougher than it was.

Not like the insulting brother who blows up like a balloon just looking at the stuff. No, I was tougher, immensely tough and resistant to the evil ways of this vine.

Apparently, your immune system can change over time, or I’m sadly not as tough as I think.

This summer now rivals that early one for the title of “Ugly Summer.” I’m not the only one vying for that title, either.

My niece went tubing down a river with some friends on a hot summer day, an event that mixed alcohol and poison ivy-covered banks.

Now, you can take alcohol and wipe it over your skin to remove the urishol oils, if you act quickly. But apparently that’s not how she administered her alcohol.

She ended up with poison ivy splotches all across her back side and bottom.

Reminds me of one of my baby boy cousins who was out horsing around in the woods and used the broad leaves of the vine for “toilet paper.”

Seeing the baby boy cousins grown into middle-aged men reminds me that we don’t have a lot of time left.

I gave myself a challenge last year to look at what life would be like if I worked on my own dreams, if I put my talent, energy, creativity and brilliance (yes, brilliance) to work on my own projects and sadly, not into those of others.

It’s been fun, incredibly dirty and very often physically ugly.

I’ve been building gardens with kids, inner-city kids. I love the work.

I love that the kids come in a rainbow of colors and have amazing spunk.

With their help, I hope to start a doctorate in the fall that studies what communities are doing to address food insecurity issues.

I want to work on job-creation programs for kids around gardening because, unlike my youth, there are few summer jobs for kids.

Hence there is little time to tell stories — yours or my own.

However, one does stand out, and it involves being or at least feeling ugly.

I had just finished weeding and watering, one muddy day. The kids I was working with stayed longer than expected on the job and I hesitated to stop.

Unfortunately, that made me late for a meeting across town. Traffic was horrific, and as I dragged my late and mud-covered self inside, I noticed that a coworker, just off the job as well, looked stunningly gorgeous.

She wore black leggings, the kind of tights women wear now in place of slacks, with three inch heels and a little lace top.

I admired her outfit and remarked, “How do you manage when you just got off work?”

She said — and I quote — “I don’t believe in disrespecting the kids. I dress up to honor them.”

Then, shaking her gorgeous, flowing, red hair, she exclaimed, “I don’t have a problem wearing $200 jeans to work outside. It shows them I care.”

I didn’t question her caring for the kids. I just struggled to remember a time when I ever owned a pair of $200 jeans, let alone use one to work in the garden.

I went home thinking, “Gosh, can I feel or be any more ugly?”

The next day, I told the story to the kids. This bright and sassy girl named Temika shook her head and said, “I bet she’s a stripper. I bet she does this work by day and strips by night. And, that’s how she affords $200 jeans.”

I hope you are having a great summer, ugly or not.

Mary Colborn is a Port Orchard resident.

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