A Poisonous Mistake?

Staghorn Sumac in Michigan

I have very few memories of my paternal grandfather because he died when I was so young. I do quite clearly remember, however, the day he urged my sister and me to touch our tongues to sumac that grew in my grandparents’ back yard. This is probably so clear not because of its lemony flavor but because my mother was NOT pleased when she heard about it! Like many others, she may not have been sure about the difference between poison sumac and the safe variety of staghorn sumac.

I remember at the time my father assured her that he knew it was safe. I didn’t know until he told me his story years later exactly how he knew that the sumac was edible. He recounted to me that as a child he had been worried his parents were making a poisonous mistake by planning to use sumac berries in making an inexpensive, lemonade-type beverage. As the berries ripened, he took it upon himself to discover the truth about their safety. That’s the story I tell in “Sumac Summer,” which I am happy to say has just been published by Modern History Press in the U.P. Reader #5 anthology!

Reverend Ernest Ross and Family (Becky’s father, Philip, is 3rd from the left in front, wearing the dark sweater)

Because this has just been published, I won’t be posting the story here until next year. Meanwhile, I told readers of my blog last year about publication of a story regarding an early spring walk near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A face-to-face meeting with an indeterminate species brought about a rather humorous situation, which I chronicle in my short story, “Much Different Animal.” I hope you’ll read and enjoy it!

Much Different Animal

by Becky Ross Michael

Spring in Upper Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula arrives late and is a whole different animal from other places I’ve lived. Harsh realities of winter recede, inch by inch, while signs of sprouting spring replace them in fits and starts. “Unpredictable” is the key word, and if the weather is pleasant for ten minutes, you should take advantage.

“Let’s go for a ride out by Sand Bay,” he suggested, as the two seasons collided on a clear Saturday afternoon.

Happy to make enjoyable use of weekend hours away from the classroom, I agreed. “Great idea. Let’s leave the dog home,” I added, glancing at our little, black Shi Tzu. “Boo Boo’s muddy from our walk this morning, and I don’t want him in the car before he’s had a bath.”

The drive along a two-lane, twisty road from Laurium toward the bay was relaxing, as always. I imagined the smell from clear, icy waters of Lake Superior greeting us as we turned northward. That day, unfortunately, the sky darkened as we neared the lake, and the view through the windshield became misty.

 We passed a small waterfall and a bakery displaying a closed sign. I looked forward to when the monks would reopen The Jampot for the tourist season. Their delectable muffins often enhanced our trips to the beach.

Spotting the driveway to a house where one of my students lived, I knew we were approaching the turnout. By the time we arrived at the graveled parking lot, the air was a thick, soupy fog.

We parked next to a lone car wearing an out-of-state license plate. Tourists didn’t usually visit so early in the spring. Donning our jackets, we headed to the path. This was in the years before the posting of erosion regulations and construction of steep wooden steps for traversing the sand dunes. Our zealous beach-dog, Boo, had helped us blaze a trail during previous summers, and it headed west at an angle to avoid the steep decline of the bank. The winter’s snow and ice were gone, but flattened grasses, bent bushes and cracked tree limbs attested to their recent occupancy.

Picking our way along the path, I envisioned warm summer days and wondered if we’d be able to see anything when we reached our goal. From the calm lake, I heard only a soft lapping when an occasional wave reached the shore. Toward the end of our descent, a male form materialized through the mist in front of us, as we gained on him. The tourist? When the figure came to an abrupt halt, we almost ran into him, standing stock-still and looking toward the beach.

“Those your dogs?” the stranger asked, with a nervous edge to his voice.

Our gaze followed where his hand pointed, through a narrow expanse of underbrush and grasses. Slinking along the sand, their ghostly forms appeared out of the haze. As their sure paws wove around piles of stones formed from the scraping of winter ice floes, the two moved past us without a sound.

I held my breath.

“I don’t think those are dogs,” answered my partner.

 Eyeballs widened, the stranger turned to face us for confirmation. Without missing a beat, he ignored the path and clawed his way straight up the steep embankment.

Relieved we hadn’t brought Boo Boo along, we also decided to use caution and cut our visit short. With a bit more decorum, we stuck to the path.

Back in my elementary classroom on Monday, a typical indoor recess was necessary due to spring rains. During that wild twenty minutes, I overheard the student who lived near Sand Bay mention “dogs” while talking with a friend.  With practiced nonchalance known to many teachers, I asked them if anything special happened over the weekend. The child then recounted a story about their “hybrids” escaping the house and how they found them across the road at Sand Bay.

To this day, I picture the stranger telling anyone who will listen about his run-in with the “pack of wolves,” in the untamed wilderness otherwise known as the Keweenaw.


56 thoughts on “A Poisonous Mistake?

  1. Sumacade’s quite a refreshing drink, and a nice substitute for lemonade. I’ll not pick mushrooms in the woods, but sumac’s something else; it’s recognizable enough to pick safely. Fun story!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations on imminent publication, Becky! We have a Newfoundland dog, and people often remark that she looks like a bear, but I don’t think anyone has really thought we were walking our bear on a leash. Not yet, anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. How lovely! This is the story in the anthology I won… Nice to see it again and be reminded. I suppose that kind of sumach is what we call Sweet Sumach? I have never grown it. Interesting as I didn’t know there was a poisonous type.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s the one, Maria:) There are several varieties of sumac/sumach that are non-poisonous, and this one is probably similar to what you know as the “sweet” type. I’ve also learned that it can be pronounced many different ways but didn’t want to muddy the waters too much in my story: “sue-mack,” “sue-mock,” and “shoe-mack” are all possibilities!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had no idea there was sumac that isn’t poisonous!! My mother made sure that my brother and I gave it a very wide berth, which I do to this day. Congratulations on the publication of your story in he U.P. Reader #5 anthology. That’s wonderful news!! I enjoyed your story of meeting up with a “pack of wolves” on the beach. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Liz, Because of the danger involved, I think it’s the poisonous type that tends to stick in our minds. But this other type grows in many states, including MI and TX. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on my story! Very appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate that, Cecelia! Actually, there are many varieties of sumac, but poisonous/non-poisonous is one way to differentiate them. It always surprises me how something red can taste like lemons…just doesn’t fit with what we normally think:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Congratulations! 🙂

    Is this the same couple from your short story about the puppy named Boo-Boo? 🙂

    Your story about sumac makes me think of what happened to me and my mom this summer. We bought a really pretty plant at a local nursery, Monkshood. About a week ago, my mom was reading a book and in it, a little boy ate some monkshood and died! She Googled the plant, and sure enough, it’s really toxic to animals. We both ended up pulling it from our gardens. 😦 (Mine was planted where my cat goes, so I didn’t want to take the chance that he might eat some!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The little boy in my sumac story is my father. My Boo-Boo story was based on my dog, but in real life there were no kids involved:) I bought monkshood once by accident, too. I think it can even be dangerous to touch it if you don’t wash your hands! We got rid of it, eventually.

      Liked by 1 person

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