Did your grandma ever make you rinse with Listerine?

Today I’m going to tell you a story about my grandma. My mom’s mom. She was Jewish, so I called her Bubbie. When I was really young, before I went to school and learned about Jesus and other things that made her uncomfortable, she loved me. She took me places–the bowling alley, the zoo, restaurants, the mall. It’s so easy to love someone who doesn’t yet know her own mind. And I loved her, too. My mom didn’t go out much, so those trips with Bubbie were all the more special.

I used to spend the night at Bubbie’s pretty often. My mom needed the break, I imagine. On one such sleepover, I guess that I was about 10 at the time, Bubbie helped me get ready for bed.

“It’s time for you to rinse with mouthwash,” she announced, pulling out the large bottle of Listerine from under the counter. “You’re old enough.”

Now, let me explain. This was the 80s, and mint-flavored Listerine hadn’t been invented yet. The liquid inside the bottle was an angry amber color, revealing only a hint of the hell it would wreak inside my mouth.

“Okay,” I agreed, cluelessly excited about trying something new for Bubbie.

“Put this into your mouth and swish for one minute,” she directed me, as she poured some into a paper cup.

I gulped it into my mouth, my blind trust about to be shattered. I choked. I cringed as the horrible burning spread through my mouth. What was this feeling? Why would my Bubbie do this to me?

I couldn’t take the pain. Have you ever tasted old-school Listerine? I’ve never tried moonshine, but that Listerine couldn’t have been much worse.

Bubbie saw me struggling. “Come on,” she coaxed, serious. “You can take the pain. You’re a woman.” She sounded certain. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t spit. I swished through the pain. The minute passed, although it felt like hours.

Finally she let me spit and rinse. The experience was seared into my brain. It took 15 years and a reaming by a hygienist before I tried Listerine again. By that time, the Listerine was minty and more gentle. By then I knew my own mind and my Bubbie hated me.

To this day I think back to that day in my Bubbie’s fancy bathroom. She taught me something about myself: I am strong enough to take it. I’m a woman.

That certainty saw me through three natural births and my grief after my mom died. On a regular basis, it gets me through the day. I have much more to write about my Bubbie, but for today, know this: Even though she died hating me, I love her still.

Pawn shops and positivity

I never met my dad. Have I mentioned that? I can’t remember. He and my mom had a fling, as far as I can tell from her piecemeal stories. They worked together in a pawn shop. Yeah, awesome, I know. I have no idea how long it lasted, only that there was a night with steak and eggs, an emerald ring, and sex.

My dad had two children before me. He was a drinker. His son, age three, was the victim of tragedy. My dad, drunk, backed his car into him. My dad never forgave himself, never got over the loss.

Years later, still long before that fateful night with my mom, his daughter was thrown from a horse and killed. That closed the chapter on parenthood for my dad. Still long before my conception. So, you see, any hope that I had of a relationship with my dad was doomed before I was even an embryo.

Flash forward–I’m seven years old. Like all seven-year olds, I’m a writer. I write letters to friends, to neighbors, to my dad. I wish I had that letter; I would post it here. I asked. Please meet me. I want to meet you.

No answer. Not even a note in reply. How could my seven-year-old self recover from that? She didn’t. She shut out her dad. No dad at all is always better than one who ignores you, right?

Fate was on my side. My dad passed away a year later. The drinking caught up with him. Death sealed the deal. It was a relief, it really was. No longer did I have to tell myself the story that my dad didn’t love me enough to meet me. But it’s true.

I’ll end with this thought: You might think that my dad’s failings damaged me in some way. You’re wrong. My mom loved me enough for two parents. She taught me how to ascertain my worth from within myself. She taught me never to accept less than the best from others, and to block out negativity. And I do.