Author and Sneezer Sandra Beasley
Searching for SSU (Sinus Sister University)
Guest post by Sandra Beasley
Ever since I wrote my memoir, DON”T KILL THE BIRTHDAY GIRL, I’ve had countless opportunities to tell stories related to my food allergies. But what many people don’t realize is that for the first half of my life, my asthma and my environmental allergies—which include dust, mold, ragweed, dog dander, and many others—were equally severe, and a constant factor in my daily life. Over the years, my mother’s diligent advice and an army of inhalers and pills had tamed these conditions. Or so I thought…until I began planning for college.
My father and I drove from our home in Virginia up to Massachusetts. I liked Amherst College’s small size and thriving a capella scene. Plus, the budding poet in me wanted to walk streets once walked by Emily Dickinson. (Though I’d later learn the Belle of Amherst was a recluse who didn’t stroll about much. Socializing consisted of baking gingerbread for the neighborhood kids, then lowering it down to them in a basket from her window.)
As we drove in, I commented on the beauty of the landscape: a Town Hall complete with spired towers and curving archways, red brick, and tree-lined avenues everywhere. At this point we still had the windows rolled up. Once we parked at Amherst College and got out of the car, I had a different take on the greenery.
With a sinking feeling, I realized I’d never spent serious time surrounded by coniferous forest. How had this never occurred to me? They didn’t call the family house adjacent to Emily Dickinson’s homestead “The Evergreens” for nothing. In northern Virginia my allergy to pine trees, particularly their sap, had never been a big deal beyond the annual debate over a real Christmas tree.
But here, the very long-needled firs that I found so charming meant I could not stay. My father gave me the white handkerchief he always carried, and I swabbed helplessly at my nose. We poked around campus for an obligatory 45 minutes. Then I was ready to go.
Brown University wasn’t much better. Here the culprit was not pine trees, but halls that had been standing since 1764, and had over 300 years of dust and mildew to prove it. When I got to the dorm room of my dreadlocked, Klezmer-playing, vaguely brilliant student host, she explained apologetically that I’d need to crash on the floor. As I hunkered down on the moldy carpet to ponder my options, I realized: I didn’t have any options. I got a hotel.
By the time my search took me down to Wake Forest University, where I was interviewing for a very prestigious Reynolds scholarship, I was disheartened. However, seeing Wake Forest’s new buildings with their bright white columns and their country-club furniture, not to mention the swings dangling from elms that dotted the campus, lifted my spirits. I lingered at one doorway, admiring the curlicued molding, and—Huh, what was that smell?
I sniffed, then sniffed again. I knew that scent. No matter, I was running late to meet the other applicants and the judging panel. I hustled in and gathered with 20 other antsy teenagers. My sniffing continued, becoming outright sniffling. My eyes were starting to water. My confidence cracked a bit. This was not going to make a good impression during the question and answer session.
One of the other applicants looked over at me. “Are you crying?” she asked.
As it turns out, the girl with the violent allergy to cigarette smoke was not destined to win a free ride courtesy to college of…the inheritors of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco fortune.
I ended up at the University of Virginia, a fitting place for someone who had attended a high school named for Thomas Jefferson. I can rhapsodize over many parts of my UVA experience, from studying in their English department to living on the Lawn (and streaking the Lawn wasn’t so bad either). I can admit some less-than-rapturous memories of the dining hall, from the countless “Sandra-friendly” plates of plain steamed cod, to one server’s erroneous assurance that the risotto didn’t contain dairy. But one thing I never took for granted: taking a deep breath of familiar Virginia air that didn’t make me need to wheeze, splutter, sneeze, or cough.
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