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Inviting Writing: When Grandma Makes You Drink Poison

We've arrived at the final chapter in our "fear and food" theme in Inviting Writing (look for a new theme on Monday), and have we got a great story for you!Our last writer remembered always dreading dinner at her intimidating grandfather's house. Christine Grogan, on the other hand, had no reason t...

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We've arrived at the final chapter in our "fear and food" theme in Inviting Writing (look for a new theme on Monday), and have we got a great story for you!

Our last writer remembered always dreading dinner at her intimidating grandfather's house. Christine Grogan, on the other hand, had no reason to fear dining at her sweet old grandmother's house...until one particular afternoon.

Grandma's Poison By Christine Grogan

One of the great pleasures of visiting my grandmother was sitting at her kitchen table and eating her home-baked pastries, cookies and cakes. One of twelve children who were raised on a dairy farm by immigrant Finnish parents, she learned to cook and bake at home. The kitchen was her domain, and on its wall a folk-art plaque—“No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best”—declared the pride she took in her food.

Courtesy Flickr user Bobby Chromik (Lawcrow)

When I was ten years old, I visited her after school one day, expecting to have an hour or two to visit with her before my father came to pick me up. I took a place at the kitchen table, and she brought forth an assortment of baked goods and reached into the refrigerator to retrieve a chilled pitcher filled with a red-colored beverage. I was already enjoying a cookie when she urged me, “Have some Kool-Aid. It’s really good. I added poison berry juice to it.”

I paused for a moment, thinking that I must have misheard her. “What did you put in the Kool-Aid?”

“Poison berry juice.”

She pushed a glass toward me. Something had to be wrong. I couldn’t be hearing correctly.

“What did you say?”

She repeated it, and I was stunned. My grandmother, always such a gentle person, couldn’t have put poison in the Kool-Aid. Even so, I told her I didn’t want anything to drink.

“You must try some,” she insisted.

I sat silently, scrambling mentally to find some explanation as she said the words one more time. Poison berry juice—there was no mistaking it.

I managed to choke out another refusal, but the situation had become a standoff. My grandmother wasn’t taking no for an answer, and all attention was focused on that glass.

Did she not understand the meaning of the word poison? That was impossible.

“Try it. It’s good. I made it especially for you.”

Especially for me? My grandmother’s kitchen, once so familiar and comforting, had warped into a sinister place where guests were poisoned. My grandmother, once so kind and loving, had apparently descended into madness.

When had this happened? Had anyone noticed that she was losing her mind? Why had she chosen me as her victim? Would anyone figure out what she had done to me? Would she kill more people before anyone realized she had gone over the edge?

I couldn’t speak, and my grandmother wasn’t talking either. She just stared at me—quizzically at first and then, as the showdown continued, with some irritation visible on her face.

She pushed the glass closer to me. “You must try some.”

Terrorized as I was, I began to think that I risked losing my life in some other way if I continued to refuse to drink. What if she realized that I knew she was trying to kill me? We were alone in the house. I couldn’t risk enraging her. I couldn’t let on that I was afraid.

The glass was under my nose, and she continued to insist that I drink. I took a sip, wondering how long it would take before I would lose consciousness. Maybe if I drank very little, the poison wouldn’t kill me. But she urged me to drink more, and I took another sip. Where was my father? When would she be satisfied? I watched the clock, and the minutes ticked by. My grandmother was silent, and I was too frightened to speak.

I began to have some hope that whatever she had put in the Kool-Aid was a slow-acting poison. Maybe my father would arrive with enough time to get me to a hospital. Maybe I would live to warn others about her insanity. I envisioned her being led by a doctor and guards down a dimly-lit hallway, disappearing forever into an insane asylum.

More than an hour passed and then, finally, my father arrived. As soon as we left the house, I told him that he had to take me to the hospital immediately so that I could get my stomach pumped, explaining that Grandma had insisted that I drink Kool-Aid with poison berry juice.

My dad started laughing. It was several minutes before he was able to gain enough control to explain what I had never noticed before—that native speakers of Finnish always pronounce the letter 'b' as if it were 'p'.

And that was the day I drank Kool-Aid with boysenberry juice.
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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