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.

39 thoughts on “Did your grandma ever make you rinse with Listerine?

  1. “It’s so easy to love someone who doesn’t yet know her own mind” – geez, this line, it’s SO TRUE. What a heartbreaking realization, that someone who’s supposed to love you doesn’t…

    1. Agree–GREAT line. Loved this memory and the detail. I have a love/hate affair with Listerine in college when I got my tongue pierced, but thankfully they had the mint kind then. I did have to finish a whole bottle in three days, so it was kind of similar. Love that it gave you strength, this memory, and how sweetly sad that you still loved her and awful that she died hating you. Kills me.

  2. I totally love Listerene. My Dad and I used to have gargling contests with it, I kid you not. It burns like a mother, though, doesn’t it? I love the characterization of your Bubbie and the ways she showed her strength to you.

  3. ugh – I got some super-hellacious batch of it recently that wasn’t so minty fresh & relived that experience too! I think I told myself pretty much the same thing – so apparently we women get warped with this mentality somewhere along the way! lol

  4. I remember those bottles…I would only use minty green or the on fire red one. I am anxious to read more about your Bubie.

  5. I’m definitely old school mouthwash. I remember (at the suggestion of my dentist not grandmother) to rinse with Listerine. That burning. What was up with that? But now if a mouthwash doesn’t burn, in my mind it’s not killing the bad stuff. Loved reading about you and your grandmother.

  6. You are a great person for you can say what you said at the end of this post. And about I love this line: “I am strong enough to take it. I’m a woman”. Bubbie did you do a favour, however disgusting it felt in your mouth. I don’t quite remember the old- Listerine but I remember what my grandma used to give us as a mouth wash. It’s alum. It’s dry and very warm and believe it’s burns like hell too. Funny isn’t it how normal physical experience stay embedded in our brains and hold a meaning for ever.

  7. Oh man, I’ve never tasted old school Listerine and now I reeeeeeeaaaaaaaaallllly don’t want to. I love that you take comfort in your strength.

    1. It really is. I like having something tangible like that. I can re-experience it, and I have a tool to use to teach my kids a thing or two!

  8. I remember trying that old school Listerine in the 80s when I was about 5, and I was curious about that brown stuff that my parents used every morning after they brushed their teeth. Ouch!

  9. I have a Listerine story, but it’s nothing like this. So many good lines in this – loving people who don’t know their mind yet in particular. Well done. So emotional.

  10. Oh my gosh did this bring back memories…I didn’t have a Bubbie but I had a great aunt Hilda, and she loved her Listerine. Thank you for a beautifully written memory.

  11. I do remember that Listerine! My parents had some and I tried it at about the same age you did… ::shudder:: What a fun memory of your Bubbie!

  12. This is a really great story, beautifully told. I loved the line, “It’s so easy to love someone who doesn’t yet know her own mind.” I’m definitely intrigued and look forward to reading more of your Bubbie tales.

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