Not too long ago, I had to have a tooth pulled. It was a middling-large one at the outer edge of my smile, the first step toward getting a false tooth implanted into my jawbone. No big deal, right? I’ve certainly had many more painful interventions done in my mouth. This one is different in only one small way: for the first time in my long life, I will no longer have all my own teeth.
I suppose that isn’t such a big deal either. After all, a surprising number of bits and pieces of me—tonsils, veins, adenoids, appendix, fallopian tubes, a couple of small malignant tumours—have been snipped or tied off over the years with hardly more than a passing thought to the loss. Furthermore, the tooth that the surgeon extracted was dead anyway, roots long since gone, capped years ago with a crown that finally gave way and broke in half from old age as I bit down on a sandwich. So why am I making a fuss over it?
Having all my own teeth has mattered to me because it mattered a great deal to my mother. She routinely dragged me and my sister off to the dentist to have our teeth checked, drilled, filled, and pulled, throughout our childhood and until we left home.
We both fought valiantly, but nothing we did—not tantrums, not hysterical crying, not hiding from the ordeal—nothing at all changed the inevitable outcome: at the appointed time, we sat there shaking in panic and dread while the dentist, a retired army dentist who didn’t bother using anaesthetics and who gave us candies as treats following the experience to make up for the torture of his slow, clumsy drill, plied his trade.
I was well into my twenties before I discovered that there was such a thing as Novocaine in the world, and dentistry didn’t actually have to be agonizingly painful. Anyone who is hesitant about getting Novocaine injected into gums and palate has never been a little child who had to sit quietly through the ordeal of having a slow dental drill grind away, over and over and over the screaming nerves of a decayed tooth by an aging dentist whose main aim was to get off his sore, gouty feet.
I could have cried with relief to hear, many years later, from another dentist in another town, that I didn’t have to be in pain during the procedure, although it took many more years for my knee-jerk panic at the sound of that low-pitched dental drill to begin to subside, even though it was now painless.
Having endured so much to keep them, my teeth have become important to me. It was my mother, though, who set the bar for endurance, and comparatively speaking, I didn’t even come close.
Mum stood a hair over five feet tall, with small bones delicately knit. “A little bit of a thing, no bigger than a minute,” my grandmother used to say. My father bragged that Mum had an eighteen-inch waist when they were married, and although the waist grew a little thicker as she aged, she retained that air of delicacy. Her dark brown hair had turned salt-and-pepper while she was still young, and the effect suited her well. She was tiny, with that wiry strength that slender women often keep into very old age. She had the best legs in the neighbourhood, slim and shapely, and her smile showed teeth that were straight and white.
As a child, however, Mum wasn’t one of those cute little girls you sometimes see in photographs, all dimples and curls and hundred-watt smiles. No, not pretty. Even I, who adored her, had to admit that. The few photographs she had saved from those years showed a scrawny, unsmiling child of the Depression with hair that had obviously been cut around a bowl, scabby knees, nose too wide for her narrow face—and a mouth full of large, brown, crooked, rotting teeth.
Mum told me the story of those teeth, the experience having long since been etched into her bones. “Money was scarce,” she said, “not only during the Great Depression, but for years afterward. There were many times I walked home from school wondering if there would be food on the table that evening.” There was simply no money to pay for a dentist; she must find another way to deal with the reality of those painful, ugly teeth.
For years Mum suffered through toothache after dreadful toothache, until finally she decided there was nothing for it but to get rid of the mess in her mouth that was causing her so much grief. One fall, she managed to get someone in the village to come to her house armed with pliers and remove every single tooth—without the benefit of any kind of anaesthetic.
Mum confided that the pain of that procedure had been so excruciating that she didn’t think she would live through it, but she was so determined to rid herself of this plague of rotten and aching teeth that she forced herself to endure the agony until every single tooth was gone.
She was seventeen at the time.
Store-bought teeth eventually repaired the damaged smile, and she always took pains to look her best. Photographs now revealed a young woman with a wide, generous smile. I, however, knew the truth behind that shining white smile: for the rest of her life, no matter how many compliments she received—after all, she was an attractive, animated woman—my mother was never able to look in a mirror without seeing the girl with that mouthful of horrible, aching teeth.