A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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The excitement I felt at losing my baby teeth was soon replaced with horror when my new teeth emerged: the two in front were huge, and my lower teeth looked like cars on a highway after a severe winter storm. My embarrassment deepened when kids at school called me Bucky Beaver, the mascot of a toothpaste brand in the 1950s. There was no escape. An already sensitive kid, I concluded that I was not very attractive.
Although a few of my classmates were fitted with braces, the same would not happen to me. My blue-collar dad made enough to pay the bills with occasional splurges, but braces were out of the question. I became envious, imagining that with perfect teeth I’d be accepted.
When I was thirty years old, my first wife, Elin, and I were working in São Paulo, Brazil. Having few expenses and good compensation, I decided to get braces. I found an orthodontist who recommended removing four teeth to ease the crowding. The metal wires were then applied to the enamel, beginning the often-tortuous transformation.
When the project we were working on ended in 1975, we returned to a U.S. in recession. Finding a job was difficult, but I landed one and then purchased a home. Elin began pursuing a second degree. Five months into my job I was fired and went on unemployment and food stamps. The strain took a toll on us both individually and as a couple. But my teeth were coming along nicely.
In July 1976 the braces came off. I couldn’t believe the mouth I saw in the mirror was mine. Staring at my reflection, I began to cry. On the one hand, I felt attractive; on the other, my life and my marriage were falling apart.
In July 2012 my current wife, Nancy, and I attended my fiftieth high-school reunion. A classmate I knew from sixth grade brought yearbooks for us to look through. She pointed to my picture and commented on how cute I had been. I surprised myself by agreeing with her! I disclosed that I had long ago thrown away any school pictures and asked if she would make a copy of my photo and e-mail it to me. She did.
There he is: that cute boy, right there beside his classmates, where he’s always belonged.
The Salvation Army recovery program sent him to me, an emergency-services social worker, hoping I could do something. He was in terrible pain and looked exhausted. Opiates were out of the question.
Addicts often have bad teeth. When your life revolves around that next high, you crave sweets, neglect dental hygiene, and can’t afford dentists. Decay sets in: abscesses, lost teeth, or, as with this man, an infection that could easily have turned septic because of his poor health. Half his face was swollen and distorted.
Months earlier I had written a letter to every dentist, oral surgeon, and endodontist in Sonoma County — a plea on behalf of our most desperate clients: the undocumented families who labored in our vineyards, the addicts in recovery, the homeless, the children of parents who worked minimum-wage jobs. I described the emergencies I encountered when our doors opened in the morning, and the monthslong wait at our one free clinic. I asked for just one pro bono case per month. I promised not to inundate them with clients or advertise their generosity.
My plan worked. I soon had scores of dental professionals who agreed to see patients, usually before or after office hours. We were ecstatic.
Within an hour of coming in, the addicted man cried in relief as the Novocain took effect. It was one of the worst infections the dentist had ever seen, requiring an extraction, antibiotics, and the promise of a bridge after he’d healed.
Years later we’re still waiting for universal medical and dental care. Meanwhile we have our small miracles.
Santa Rosa, California
Turns out if you throw up at least once — and more often two or three times — every day, coating your enamel with stomach acid, and also subsist mainly on Diet Coke, hard candy, and chewy Sprees, your teeth are going to fall out.
First they’ll go translucent and soft, shortening into little nubs that you’ll try to hide. Pictures of me in my twenties show these half-moon teeth. Like everything else about my eating disorder — the jutting ribs, the straw-like hair, the trips to the bathroom after every meal — my dying teeth were in plain sight for all to see. In my thirties they started giving up. That was the decade of the root canal and my first implant.
By the time I was in my forties, I could have paid for a midsized sedan with the amount I’d spent on dental work — not to mention X-rays, antibiotics, painkillers, and tubes of Fixodent. My teeth or their replacements have cracked or fallen out at work, at a concert, in the ocean, while I was eating a Wheat Thin, and on a running trail next to my dentist’s office right after he’d affixed a crown. I once repaired my own partial during a friend’s wedding reception. I felt the Fixodent ooze as I sipped white wine and danced to Earth, Wind & Fire.
My earliest memories are of my dad’s dental office: the rocking chair for kids in the waiting room, the stacks of Highlights magazine, his gleaming equipment. You could say I was born with a free toothbrush in my mouth. Dad would have known the truth if he’d seen me losing weight and teeth, but he’d died when I was six. That’s when I learned life can change for the worse in an instant, and the adults are not in control.
Did my eating disorder start with his death? Or was it in those chaotic years after he died, when we moved to the middle of nowhere and my mom’s alcoholic boyfriend made every day a guessing game about his moods?
I think my dad sent Dr. S., my dentist, my way. He knows all my secrets and has never judged me. I’ve been in recovery for my eating disorder for four years. Instead of ten to fifteen emergency dental visits a year, I come in for twice-yearly cleanings. I told Dr. S. I wished face masks had been around back when I could have used the cover. He laughed and said, “But you don’t have anything to hide anymore.”
No matter how much time I’ve spent lying back in his chair, staring into the bright lights, or how many shots I get into my puffy gums, I’ve never hated going to the dentist. I always feel safe there.
Falls Church, Virginia
Ten: the number of my own baby teeth I pulled, grasping each with a wad of tissue.
Nine: the number of quarters I received from the tooth fairy.
One: the number of cans of tuna I received from the tooth fairy.
Zero: the number of cans of tuna my sister received from the tooth fairy.
Ten: my age when my friend’s sister bopped my head as I drank from a water fountain and chipped my front tooth.
Twenty-two: the number of years I lived with a badly matched cap before I had it replaced, after my husband teased me one too many times about looking as if I had eaten a “little stick of poo.”
Thirty: the number of needles required to numb my mouth during a wisdom-tooth extraction.
Three: the number of days after the extraction that I took a modeling job.
One: the number of bus shelters I nearly slammed my car into after glimpsing my huge, chipmunk face advertising a local technical college.
Two: the number of dates before my husband-to-be told me he wore a denture plate because of a bike accident when he was a teenager, and I wondered if he kept it in a glass of water beside the bed at night.
Five: the number of dates before I discovered, to my relief, that he wore his plate all night.
Fifteen: the number of times, roughly, my husband took out his denture plate and scared me with his old-man face.
One: the number of times my husband avoided being jumped by would-be muggers by taking out his dentures and scaring them.
One: the number of times my husband brushed my teeth for me while we were drunk the night before our first wedding anniversary. (We’d recently moved to Brussels and been caught off guard by the high alcohol content of Belgian beer.)
Seven: the number of baby teeth I pulled from our daughter’s mouth.
Four: the number of baby teeth I pulled from our son’s mouth. (He liked pulling his own.)
Three: the number of toothbrushes my husband had — home, office, briefcase — to brush his teeth with after every meal.
Two: the number of toothbrushes left behind after his death, because he had his briefcase with him when he died.
Six: the number of my husband’s missing teeth, which I hoped would make it easier to identify him in the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Zero: the number of police officers who knocked at my door to tell me they’d found my husband’s remains.
One: the number of dental plates I found after my husband’s death, which I included as part of a collection of objects in a memorial for Canadian victims of 9/11.
Two: the number of teeth my daughter’s orthodontist insisted on fixing for free after learning of her father’s fate.
Twenty: the number of years I’ve wished my husband could be there to scare me and our kids by taking out his plate and showing us his old-man face.
My mother made the appointment, hoping the orthodontist could correct my two bottom teeth that slightly overlapped. Their crookedness had never bothered me, but getting braces was an adolescent rite of passage in our well-to-do Upstate New York suburb. It would have been odd if my mother, who always bought me whatever I wanted, hadn’t offered me perfectly straight teeth.
The orthodontist was a pale, middle-aged man with glasses. I sat in a vinyl examination chair while he, standing, talked down at me. My mother sat in the corner. “There are two directions we can go,” he told me. “We can try braces, but that isn’t a permanent solution. Once the braces come off, your teeth will gradually revert to their original position.”
He spoke quickly, as if he didn’t want to waste time on this futile option. “Or,” he said, brightening, “we could extract four teeth to create more room in your mouth, then apply braces.”
My jaw throbbed with anticipatory pain. The overlap was barely noticeable — how could fixing it require anything so drastic as the removal of four teeth? I didn’t ask. Instead I stared dumbly as he pulled out a sheet of paper with a line drawing of a face in profile. “This is what the average woman’s face looks like,” he said.
The words sounded strange. I was thirteen years old and used to thinking of myself as child, not a woman.
“Compared to this face, your chin recedes a little too much. And your nose . . .”
I braced myself. He knew my family well enough to know we were Jewish. I didn’t understand why an orthodontist was even bringing the subject up.
“Your nose is a little larger than average,” he said matter-of-factly, pointing to the picture that showed what my nose — what, apparently, all women’s noses — should look like. To me, my nose had never seemed any different from those of my gentile friends, but it was, according to the orthodontist, several millimeters too large.
This must have been 1981 or so. I was electric back then, crackling with youth: unblemished skin, luxuriant eyelashes, and thick, chestnut-colored hair. I wonder now how such a pallid, unremarkable man got up the nerve to talk to me about beauty. And yet that’s exactly what he did.
“I recommend four extractions, braces, and plastic surgery,” he said.
I sat in silence after he’d finished. I’d had no idea there was so much wrong with me. As she gathered her coat and bag, my mother said briskly, “We’ll consider both options.” I could tell from her tone we wouldn’t be considering either one.
I no longer have the vibrant skin and hair of a thirteen-year-old. When I look at my teeth, chin, and nose in the mirror now, I quite like them. They remind me of what my father said to me after my appointment: “Who cares what an ‘average’ profile looks like? No one wants to be average. I don’t want you to be average.”
My father died when I was young, and I’ve spent my adulthood trying to live as he would have wished: at peace with the fact that I’m not perfect, but also not average.
Delmar, New York
In the summer of 1970 I was sixteen and living in the shadow of my popular older sister, so when our eighteen-year-old next-door neighbor invited me over, I didn’t hesitate. I was pleased he’d asked me instead of her.
We sat together in the basement of his parents’ suburban home, listening to music. When he pulled out some beer, I indulged, wanting to feel grown-up. It didn’t take long before the alcohol washed over me. My neighbor stood up and held out his hand. “Let’s dance,” he suggested. That sounded good to me, so we swayed to the music. Then my head started spinning, and I fell face-forward and cracked my front teeth on the concrete floor.
I was too drunk to face my parents that night. The next morning I made up a story about stumbling on some concrete stairs at the neighborhood park. If my parents suspected otherwise, they didn’t say.
Over the years I’ve had to get a lot of dental work to maintain the repair. I’ve had embarrassing moments, like when I was in labor with my first child and clenched my teeth so hard I broke my bridge. On my first day of being a mother, I felt like Ma Kettle, with a gap where my front teeth should have been. Photos of that day show me with a tight-lipped smile, though I was beaming inside.
I wish I could rewind time to bring back my happier smile. Even now, more than fifty years later, my gum line aches for my original teeth.
Sally Delwiche Dux
Kansas City, Missouri
I was born in Loma Linda, California, but, due to my father’s work as a doctor in international public health, I spent the first two years of my life in Thailand, followed by nine years in Europe. We moved back to California when I was eleven years old.
It was not unusual for my father to be gone for weeks at a time when I was growing up. When he was home, he mostly stayed in his home office, chain-smoking and listening to the BBC World News. He seemed to be in a constant state of stress, always complaining about world affairs — and his teeth.
When I was in high school, he was fired from his company, but he still went to Thailand frequently to get his teeth fixed. He said he could get dental work done there for a fraction of the price of what the flawed American health system charged. He’d spend several months in California, then several months in Thailand. This went on throughout my teenage years.
Frankly I did not mind him being gone. When my father was home, I was under his strict supervision and had to ask permission for everything. He typically said no. When he was gone, I had my freedom back. My mom worked full-time and pretty much let me do what I wanted.
It wasn’t until I was thirty-five that my father confessed: The frequent trips to Thailand were not for dental work. He went there to visit his other wife and children. I had two half brothers just a few years younger than I was. He had started this other family when I was just three years old. It wasn’t the state of the world that kept him in a constant state of stress — it was living a secret double life.
It took years for my rage to subside. When he grew ill, I became more forgiving. In his final months I told him it was OK. “The past is the past,” I said. “It doesn’t change the fact that you’re my father and I love you.”
He showed me pictures of his Thai wife (who had died several years prior) and my two Thai half brothers, who still had no idea they had an American brother. It was strange.
After my father died, my aunt, who had known about the Thai family the entire time, e-mailed his sons but never got a response. I have contemplated finding them and introducing myself, but I don’t want to disrupt their lives. Some things are better left alone.
Mountain Center, California
When I saw the dentist over spring break of my sophomore year, he looked in my mouth and said I absolutely could not leave until my wisdom teeth came out. They were growing in a precarious manner and about to hit some major nerves.
He went to work with needles, scalpels, pliers, and a lot of enthusiasm. The first three came out all right, but the fourth wouldn’t budge. He tried everything, refreshing the Novocain over and over. Office hours ended. Staff started going home. The sky began to lose its light.
He decided the only thing to do was to saw the tooth into four pieces. This took a long time but was ultimately successful. By the time he finished, it was dark outside. My cheeks were full and hard, as if I had two billiard balls in my mouth, and my eyes were swollen nearly shut.
I went directly to bed, got up the next day, drove back to my dorm, and went to class the following morning. I didn’t feel well, but I didn’t want to fall behind in physics, my hardest class.
I was the last to arrive and had to parade in front of the class to get to the only open seat. A hush fell over the room. As I passed the professor, he said, “My God! You’ve got to get to a doctor!” My jaw was purple-yellow, and the veins on the side of my neck were as green as pine needles.
Being broke and a long way from home, I did the only thing I could: walk to the student health center. They referred me to a dentist downtown.
I reluctantly went a day or two later, looking even greener than before. The color had spread to my collarbone. I was impressed by the dentist’s shiny equipment as he busied himself with tools on a tray. Then I swear he must have punched me in the jaw, because my mouth exploded with pus. He put a cup beneath my chin and told me to spit in it. I couldn’t speak. I wanted to kick this Neanderthal in his manhood, but I couldn’t do anything.
He leaned hard on my jaw and pressed. More pus came out. I thought I might pass out. I was foggy and helpless as he told me I had an abscess that required surgery. “I think you’re a perfect candidate for an experimental procedure called cryosurgery,” he said. That’s all I needed to hear. I wouldn’t trust this guy with any surgery, let alone an experimental one. I staggered out.
Back in my dorm my jaw swelled up again in no time. I decided to investigate it myself. A biology major, I boiled my dissection kit and put the instruments on a clean towel, then climbed onto the bathroom counter, close to the light. I opened my mouth and made an inch-long incision in my gums. I peeled it back and saw something white inside. I gave it a tug with my tweezers.
Out came a long wad of packing stitched inside my gum.
(Later I would bring that packing back to both dentists and show them what they had missed. The first dentist denied ever using packing like that.)
I rinsed my mouth out and used a curved needle to stitch myself up. You can do anything if you put your mind to it. The green in my neck went away. About eight days later I went back to the student health center. They took out the stitches and said it looked good.
Many years later, when my daughter came of age, I told her she could bring anybody home and I would love her and love them. “With one exception,” I said. “No dentists.”
At fourteen I had pronounced buckteeth. It was usually peers who made fun of me, but not always. I remember one adult stranger pulling in his lower jaw, sticking out his teeth, and leering at me while his girlfriend laughed.
Ninth grade was particularly painful. For years I’d been pleading with my parents for braces, but the money just wasn’t there. They had enough trouble getting food on the table and affording clothes for their children.
Desperate to be attractive, I developed the habit of not opening my mouth and covering it when I talked or read aloud. I liked being in the school chorus but was so self-conscious about my teeth that I barely opened my mouth when I sang. For some reason, however, at a spring chorus concert my self-consciousness fell away. I forgot everything except the music. The conductor met my eyes and smiled. When I saw my family after the concert, my younger brother said, “You really sang!” The conductor later surprised me by inviting me to join the senior chorus, retracting an earlier rejection.
That would be my last school year with buckteeth. My father bartered with an orthodontist, exchanging his carpentry services for braces for me. The next year I stopped being an outcast, made a few friends, and sang with the senior chorus. Having straight teeth didn’t magically make life perfect or eliminate my insecurities — not even close. But I appreciated what my father had done so I could have them, and I still do.
In Nepal, near the border with India and Sikkim, lies Jamuna, a mixed-caste village of mud-and-thatch houses scattered from the river valley to ten thousand feet above. I moved there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1976 and lived with a family while helping to build a drinking-water system so the women would not have to walk hours to the river and back carrying heavy containers of water.
I lived in a room above the water buffalo and walked to the family hut for meals served around the cook fire, eaten rapidly before growing cold in the evening chill. Breakfasts and dinners consisted of a huge mound of rice, a puddle of lentils, and, on a good day, a smattering of whatever vegetable was in season. To this tasty but sometimes boring meal, I added toasted chickpeas for crunch.
Once, on about the third bite, a shattering sound reverberated through my skull; I rolled over in pain. I had bitten down not on a chickpea but on an unforgiving rock that had been missed in the sifting of the rice and was large enough to shatter a molar. The exposed nerve sent unbearable pain through my body.
After a sleepless night I left early in the morning on foot to cross the border to Darjeeling, India, a much shorter trip than trying to get to Kathmandu. The path led from terraced rice fields near the river to a magical cloud forest of giant trees, hanging moss, orchids, and gibbons swinging through the branches. I couldn’t appreciate the beauty; I was on a mission.
I arrived in Darjeeling by evening, and the next morning searched for a dentist’s office. I found several that looked more like a car mechanic’s shop, with a chair on the road out front and a sign showing a crude, hand-drawn picture of a tooth. I had seen people sitting in such chairs having a tooth pulled with a pair of pliers, and I passed these up in search of a proper dentist.
At last I found a dentist and was ushered into a small office with a kind-looking old gentleman and a chair that looked like a remnant from the Spanish Inquisition. After I was seated, the assistant began pumping a foot treadle — the same kind a tailor would use to power his sewing machine, only this powered the drill. Even with the assistant’s energetic pumping, the pitiful RPMs he produced sent vibrations through my skull like a jackhammer. Nevertheless I was out of pain when I left, and thankful.
I’ve been back to Darjeeling since my episode with the sewing-machine dentist, but I never saw him again. I imagine that, like many of the trails in Nepal that have been supplanted by roads, he and his treadle have succumbed to time and progress.
In my forties I landed a job with great insurance and could finally afford to see a dentist. She shone a penlight on my teeth and gave me a mirror. “Do you see those flat places where your teeth reflect the light?” she asked. “They tell me you grind your teeth. Do you ever have a sore jaw?”
“Yes,” I whispered. I couldn’t tell her why: that I was caught in an abusive relationship.
She prescribed a night guard and told me that the amount of wear on it would show my stress level. “More stress, more wear,” she said. That first night, I fitted the guard onto my teeth to protect them. I wished it could also have protected me from the sadness and the anger. My partner rolled over and laughed. “No wonder no one wants to touch you. You look like an ape.” She clicked out the light.
I had to replace that guard within two years. The silicone surface had been bitten so hard, it was translucent like glass. “Wow, you really grind!” said the hygienist. My face flushed.
Soon after I got my fifth night guard, I filed for divorce. It was the beginning of a three-year ordeal that included the loss of nearly everything I owned. I had to get a court order to keep my ex from stalking me. Six months after the divorce filing, the guard cracked. Still, I put it in my mouth at night, training my tongue not to touch the sharp edge. I couldn’t afford dental visits, so the guard had to last, just like the cans of black beans and bags of oatmeal in my pantry.
The day my divorce settlement was final, the night guard finally split. It was the moment I started over.
It’s been a year since then. Now I buy the cheap, soft guards from the drugstore. I don’t need as much protection as I used to.
It was a lovely May afternoon. In PE class I sat dreamily in the grass along the third-base line, thinking about the musical I’d be performing in the following night. I had a supporting role in Gypsy, and my lines, songs, and dances were ready to go. I was shaken from my reverie by several classmates yelling, “Look out!” I turned my head just as a baseball bat struck me in the mouth. I fell over, blood gushing from my lower lip.
We found the pieces of my front teeth in the grass, but the dentist couldn’t glue them back. He stitched my lip and sent me home to wait several weeks before he’d be able to do root canals and give me posts and caps. My parents settled with the family of the bat-thrower for a thousand dollars in pain and suffering.
A friend called that evening to tell me the director of the musical planned to replace me with an understudy. Fuming, my father went to the school to set the director straight. I went on the next night with special makeup and lots of aspirin. Word had gotten out about the accident, and the audience gave me a standing ovation. The girl who’d thrown the bat sent a dozen roses to me at curtain call.
On the fortieth anniversary of the incident — after decades of false teeth, posts, bridges, retainers, and surgeries — I posted about that day on Facebook. I was horrified to learn the bat-thrower still felt guilty. I asked someone to let her know I’ve never blamed her for the accident. I carry no ill will toward her. Now it is I who feel the guilt of having never made the effort to let her know.
My dad had all his teeth pulled in the army. When he came home and went to a local deli, he let out a sneeze, and his entire plate of artificial teeth flew across the room. He was so embarrassed he picked them up and ran out. He always admired people with beautiful teeth, especially women on television, as if a gleaming-white smile were the most beautiful thing about a person.
My mother also had bad teeth. About seven in the front were missing and the rest damaged. She would hold her hand over her face when she smiled. She was so frightened of the dentist that she endured the pain and died at sixty-two from a blood infection — no doubt from her teeth.
As a teenager I had a very kind dentist. Back then if your teeth were bad like mine, they didn’t waste time trying to save them, especially if you were on public assistance. He did, however, make me a nice-looking partial plate for the top. In hindsight, I wish he’d lectured me on brushing and flossing. I don’t remember brushing my teeth or being told how to do it. I think my parents just took it for granted that their children would have bad teeth.
When my dentist retired, a wonderful young man took over his practice. He coached me on how to take care of what real teeth I had left. I listened attentively. I was in my early twenties and about to embark on a career, and I wanted to feel and look good.
I used to walk up a steep hill to catch a bus to the mall where I worked. The bus driver, Sam, was a tall, soft-spoken man with glasses. One spring morning, as the bus pulled out, I realized I had forgotten to put my partial plate in.
I was horrified. I would have to get off the bus and walk home, and then how would I get to work on time? I’d be late, and the manager would lay into me.
Covering my mouth, I said to Sam, “I have to get off. I forgot to put my partial plate in this morning.” He chuckled. “Where do you live?” he asked. After I told him, he made a sudden left.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get you to work.”
I sat down as Sam diverted the bus route back to my street. No one on the bus said a word; they were mostly older people going to shop at the mall anyway. Sam stopped in front of my house and waited while I ran in to get my plate. I returned to my seat, and, chuckling, Sam headed out as if nothing had happened.
When I stepped on the bus the next day, Sam asked with a grin, “Got your teeth today?” I never forgot them again. And I never forgot his kindness.
Identifying decomposed bodies was a routine part of my job as county coroner. Teeth were often the key.
Tooth enamel is as hard as steel, and teeth are at least as persistent after death as bone. As long as there are some teeth, dental identification is as accurate as — and can be faster than — DNA. But you have to have the dental records of the person.
I was once called to a crime scene where a woman had been shot in the head multiple times. Facial identification was out of the question, and there were no fingerprints on record. The murder had taken place in a private home, so police presumed the body belonged to the homeowner, Donna, but it was my job to confirm that.
While the forensic crime unit analyzed the blood spatter, I scoured the home for the name of a dentist. A file yielded a scribbled note that read, “Call Rose — reconstruct #6?” I realized “#6” probably referred to a tooth. There were no appointment cards or bills, however, so I began calling dentists in the area looking for Rose. On my third call I found her.
Rose burst into tears as I told her why I was calling. “She was such a lovely person,” she sobbed. The forensic dentist meticulously compared Donna’s dental records to the X-rays he’d taken of the teeth. Sadly, they were a match. I called the next of kin. The end of the case for me was only the beginning of their grief.
West Chester, Pennsylvania
I was born without incisors. To fix it, I had orthodontia that cost as much as a Rolex.
First I had extractions, then braces, and then a retainer with incisors glued to metal bars in front. I named it Edward, after the vampire in Twilight. I had to wait for my bones to mature enough for implants. In the meantime I wore false teeth fused to their neighbors with glue. But even the strongest glue will fail.
The first time it happened, I was in Paris. I bit into a baguette and came away with porcelain on my tongue. I found a dentist who worked out of his palatial apartment, and he replaced my bridge while wearing a pair of carpet slippers. I lay on a chaise while he showed me pictures of his straight-toothed family. He added my photograph to the family album; he didn’t get many Americans. The procedure cost twenty euros.
Once, my teeth fell out during a job interview, and I answered questions with my crowns squirreled into my cheek. Another time they fell out in the middle of a singing lesson, and I nearly choked. They’ve even been loosened by my boyfriend’s tongue. Pictures of me during this time feature a coy, closed-lipped smile. I’ve never broken the habit of running my tongue over my teeth to make sure they’re secure.
Insurance deemed the orthodontia “cosmetic” and therefore out-of-pocket. Each crown represents neglected repairs to my parents’ kitchen, their aging roof, and their own bodies. In the U.S. our smiles betray our class more cruelly than any other body part.
Brooklyn, New York
When my mother was in her late seventies, I asked if she had any advice she’d like to pass on. I wanted to capture something of her essence in her answer. As the fourth of six children, I’d had too few quiet moments like this with her. I knew we didn’t have forever.
She was born in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression. Her father was a WWI veteran and a freelance journalist. Her mother was the last of thirteen children born on a dairy farm in Upstate New York. The story goes that because her mother drank only well water on the farm, she developed a goiter and, in her thirties, with three small children at home, died during routine surgery to remove it. The doctors claimed the surgery had been successful; the patient had let them down.
It was 1931. My grandfather couldn’t care for his children alone, so they were farmed out to various relatives, my mother going to an aunt and uncle. When her uncle died soon after, she was passed along to her father’s mother. Then later: six children, a depression of her own, a car accident that left my oldest brother brain damaged, and the ups and downs of a sixty-five-year marriage. In other words, a life — a life that could give me one key piece of advice to carry even after she was gone. We need the wisdom of our elders.
I waited as she pondered my question. Finally she spoke:
“Take care of your teeth.”
That was it. Take care of your teeth.
And so I do.
Los Angeles, California