The Poison Ivy Chronicles

06/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In July 1956, during one of the hottest days of the Cold War, I came face to face with my own personal Armageddon.

I was six years old and had just succumbed to a horrific case of poison ivy, the first of many oozing, itching bouts that turned me into a suburban Job. That my woes were caused in part by the creature I adored the most in the world made them doubly sad, and also jolted me with an early lesson in the complexity of love.

It started with an itch on my right cheek that blossomed into a cluster of red bumps, then huge, runny blisters. Within twenty-four hours my face had exploded to twice its size, and my eyes were swollen shut. My parents took me to the hospital, where a doctor gave me a shot of steroids and told me not to scratch.

That was about as effective as a judge in Jacksonville, Florida, that year ordering Elvis Presley not to swivel his hips while performing in Gator Stadium. I lay on my bed, blind and miserable, wet wash cloths pressed to the sides of my face. By squeezing as hard as I could with the cloths, I could tamp down the violence of the itching. But after a half hour or so, I couldn't bear it any longer and had to give in to a good scraping with my nails. "She's scratching!" cried my four-year-old brother who'd parked himself on the floor by my bed and was playing with a plastic truck.

I heard scurrying across the floorboards, then someone grabbed my wrists. "Try to keep your hands away from your face," my mother said.

Since it was summer, my mother, a teacher, was home. She wouldn't leave me alone for even five minutes -- I might scratch myself to death -- so I went with her every morning when she drove my brother to day camp. On these excursions, I wore one of my mother's wide brimmed hats and big, black sunglasses, which made me look like a midget mutant version of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. I was so ashamed to have anyone -- even a stranger -- see me that I lay on the back seat of our Ford station wagon. My mother pulled into the driveway of the Methodist Church, where the camp was held, and explained to the counselor who met the car why I wouldn't be attending. The young woman peered into the back seat and gasped, "Whoa, that's scary."

Gradually, I recovered. It took three weeks for the rash to go away, and another two weeks for the resulting red blotches to disappear. Curiously, the affliction was confined to my face. I don't recall anyone questioning why that would be until two months later, right before school started, when I got another rash -- no where near as bad as the first one -- but also on my face.

"It's the dog," my father announced gravely.

"Have you been hugging the dog?" asked my mother.

"You're not supposed to hug the dog!" cried my brother in an officious tone.

We were eating dinner at the kitchen table in our house on a leafy street outside Washington, D.C. The dog in question was a brown, short-haired dachshund I called Cindy, a pre-multi-culti era rebellion against my operatic Italian name. Cindy nestled at my feet, and at the mention of her name lifted her eggplant shaped ears and looked at me with a guilty expression.

Once that summer, my mother caught me kissing Cindy on her snout and ordered me never to do that again, adding, "We don't know where she's been."

Where she'd been was the poison ivy. It never occurred to me that I was risking disfigurement when I eagerly gathered up Cindy each time she came running to me from the woods in back of our house. I held her in my arms and rubbed my cheeks, first the right, then the left, up and down her adorable sway back. I might as well have slept with the poison ivy on my pillow.

The following summer my parents took me to a specialist, who gave me shots that were intended to spark immunity to the pernicious plant. I made a valiant effort to keep Cindy away from my face -- not a total disarmament of our warring bodies, but a kind of limited weapons control -- and I was careful to scrub my hands and arms with laundry soap after every session of heavy petting. I still got poison ivy, but no where near as badly.

And so the years passed. I got anti-poison ivy shots every summer until I was twelve, and they must have been somewhat effective, because my rashes continued to decrease in severity. Also, I was getting older and becoming more vigilant. I avoided every place that poison ivy might grow. If I was playing tennis and the ball rolled into the woods, I'd refuse to retrieve it. "I'm allergic to poison ivy," I'd say grimly to my friends. "Very, very allergic."

The summer of my fourteenth year I went to camp in rural Pennsylvania for the month of July, and I did not get poison ivy at all. Not one tiny bump. This gave me a sense of security, false security, as it turned out.

It also happened to be the summer I first noticed boys. I'd spotted one in particular, a tall, sandy-haired young man I danced with on a warm August night at our town's teen center, a low-slung concrete building near a Howard Johnson's drive-in. He was seventeen and a high school junior. We fell in puppy love while twisting to Chubby Checker, and at the end of the summer he invited me to a semi-formal dance at the chi-chi country club where his parents were members. "You're not going," said my mother. "He is much, much too old for you."

I whined; I begged; I cried. Still, she refused to grant permission. I appealed to my father. No luck there, either. I opened the window in my bedroom and wailed to the heavens.

Someone must have been listening, because a miracle happened. The boy's mother called and actually convinced my mother to change her mind. It seemed his parents also would be going to the dance; they'd drive and chaperone us all evening.

Once my mother relented, she threw herself into the spirit of things, spending an entire day helping me choose a dress. We combed the racks of the department stores, finally settling on a yellow cotton tea length gown with a halter neckline and full skirt. Selecting white patent leather shoes -- my first pair of high heels -- and a clutch to match, occupied another afternoon.

The morning of the party, I awoke with an itchy red bump on my right cheek. It looked like a mosquito bite, and I didn't think much of it, but soon the itching grew worse, the bump multiplied, and I was doomed.

How had this happened? I had not touched Cindy, not even so much as a pat on her head. She must have jumped on my bed and rolled around in my sheets when I wasn't looking. There was no other explanation.

I ran into the living room, where my parents sat on the couch reading the paper. Behind them, a large rectangle window overlooked the evil woods. "My face!" I wailed.

My father studied me over the top of his paper. "It's only on one side. You're still beautiful," he said.

"Don't be so vain," said my mother, in the exasperated tone that comes so easily to mothers of teenage girls. "It's only a little rash."

It was big enough, though, to cause me to cancel my date. I called the boy and made some excuse about not feeling well. Then I retreated to my room. The white bag holding my new dress looked like a shroud hanging from the closet door. On the floor, my high heels lay on their sides, the toes sunk in the carpet in defeat. I curled up on the bed and sobbed.

That was the last summer I got poison ivy on my face. It also was the last summer of Cindy, who in the fall was hit by a car in front of our house and killed. I went on to own several other dogs, none of whom, though, I loved as much as her.

In the following years of high school and college, I got only a few cases of poison ivy, and always the rashes were confined to small areas of my ankles and legs. Since adulthood, I've never developed even one slight case.

It's possible that all those years of inoculations finally worked their magic, but also I've always lived in cities -- in New York, and now in Chicago, where even on the steamiest days, I never feel compelled to leave my home on the Near North Side. I'm a lover of urban summers, of theater in the park and air conditioned restaurants, of twilight walks through town.

Beyond the city, only poison ivy awaits. With each passing summer it grows more virulent, thanks to rising carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere due to global warming. The Cold War may be over and the Soviet Union long collapsed, but in a smooth, three-leaf plant, the apocalypse still lurks.