Lucky Teeth

First published in Oh Comely magazine ~

“Smile as wide as you can for the picture,” my mother reminded me as she ushered me onto the school bus that morning. She’d combed my chestnut hair into pigtails and dressed me in a white cotton shirt covered in pink flower blotches barely attached to their translucent stems. It was second grade picture day. “I want you to look like a Norman Rockwell painting,” she said.

I fretted all day over that picture. When my turn came to sit for the photo, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bare my lips to reveal the gaping hole where my two front teeth were supposed to be. Just in time for that second grade photo, my most aesthetically important teeth had gone the way of the tooth fairy.

I tried to do what my mother wanted. But the girl with the drooping pigtails in the sloppily flowered shirt ended up wearing an expression more akin to a grimace than a smile. I wondered if my mother took solace in the fact that the gap still showed through the grimace. Several months later, the emergence of my permanent front teeth did little to fill in the gap. This situation my mother acknowledged with notably less humor.

 

When my mother laughs, she laughs with contagious abandon. If she’s genuinely amused, her whole face gets into the action. Full lips stretch into a cavernous grin causing her cheeks to bulge and force her typically wide eyes to squint nearly shut. Even her nose curls skyward to complete the joyous picture. At the focal point of that picture, two thirds down her face and smack dab in the middle of that spacious smile is a fourth-inch gap between her two front teeth. Diastema is the technical term for the condition. Flawed is how my mother always felt about it. She was neither laughing nor smiling when I emerged from the orthopedic surgeon’s office less than a year after that second grade photo and lifted my tiny fist to stave a tear. I wasn’t quite crying, and I could not yet feel the pain. I did, however, detect the crisscrossed lines of stitches extending between my two front teeth and into my upper lip, which puffed within range of my own peripheral vision. And I tasted the blood. The metallic combination of carnage and antiseptic from the office still permeated my presence like a personal cloud.

“Your father was so mad at me for making you have that operation he stormed out of the office and left me there alone with you to do all that paperwork!” My mother would tell me years later when I broached the subject. “You looked so pathetic.”

I held no memory of such event. My recollection skips from rubbing my eye in the surgeon’s office to slurping a peanut butter milkshake at home. I remember standing in our kitchen, watching my mother scoop buttery yellow ice cream from a half-gallon carton and coax each dip with her index finger into the Hamilton three-speed blender that was slightly darker yellow than the ice cream. Breyers French vanilla mixed with mounds of creamy Jiff peanut butter—she knew my favorites. I didn’t often get them. A tingling sensation had replaced the numbness in my upper lip, but my mouth still watered at the sight of that swirling confection as it darkened caramely brown. When she poured the thick shake into a glass, I could see the specks of peanut butter that had not blended all the way in. Just how I liked it. This unusual treat, my mother topped off with a straw, making it the best peanut butter milkshake in my eight-year history. It was the first of many that I’d savor over the next several days before my lip healed enough for me to return to solid food.

Though my mother involved me early on in such heavy duty decisions as which elementary school I wanted to attend after kindergarten, she never did ask for my opinion about my teeth. Already my third-grade peers had commented on my missing tooth and questioned the validity of my denial. “It’s a gap,” I’d say, peering into their curious faces. Clearly, they did not buy my explanation. My mother knew the drill. She’d had “the gap” all her life, and she had not liked it. She was sure I wouldn’t either.

For a year after undergoing the operation to remove the tissue forcing my two front teeth apart, I’d secure miniature rubber bands around those teeth in an effort to keep them from drifting back to their respective sides of my mouth. Those teeth grew big and bold and slightly crooked. Though they were not perfect, they did stay close enough together to thwart future inquiries from my classmates. Life-long self-esteem crisis averted, my mother may have thought.

 

Midway through my fourth grade year, I found myself in the principle’s office at Dickey Elementary School where the gym teacher had left me a few moments earlier. He returned to the office holding something in his hand. “Look what I found,” he said in a voice softer than I’d ever heard him use in gym class. He knelt before me and opened his palm to reveal four shards that looked like tiny chips from a porcelain sink. The shattered remnants of my two front teeth. I ran my tongue over the teeth that remained in my mouth, feeling the shredded texture behind the jagged lower edge. It confused me, this feeling of torn plaster that had replaced the previous smoothness of my teeth. I could not stop touching those teeth with my tongue, but the vision it conjured made no sense. What could they be made of? I wondered. My parents arrived within minutes, and as they led me out the door, the gym teacher held out his hand to turn over the bits of my teeth he had salvaged.

“I’m not supposed to hold the three-legged races inside,” that gym teacher had told my class one half hour earlier in the conspiratorial tone teachers like to use with nine-year-olds. But it was raining. We would have to be extra careful, he directed as my best friend grabbed my arm to partner up. She was taller and stronger and notoriously aggressive, and I, on the other hand, was puny. She pulled me through the race as best she could, but when her competitive streak kicked in about halfway through, I faltered. We both fell, and I face-planted against the shellacked hardwood floor. What were the chances, I would later wonder, of all factors converging in that moment to cause me to ruin my hard-earned teeth? By this time there was no denying; my teeth were just unlucky.

With teeth as unlucky as mine, it helped to have a dentist in the family. The two-hour drive to Ridgway seemed extra long that afternoon as I watched the rain streak against the Vista Cruiser’s windows and periodically rubbed the tip of my tongue along the alternately frayed and jagged edges of my teeth.

I’d later postulate, based on his performance with those teeth, that Uncle John could have just as effectively been a sculptor as a dentist. The two front teeth he created that day made possible the smile my mother always wanted for me. Two perfect rectangles nestled snugly together at the front of my mouth, leading the other teeth in formation like a row of valiant soldiers ready for any and all future duty (or at least the next twelve-years worth, after which I’d have to undergo the bonding procedure all over again).

I could not see that future as I sat in the dentist’s chair, tears sliding off my cheeks and onto the vinyl headrest while Uncle John performed the reconstructive operation. Several shots of Novocain had failed to completely numb my nerves, allowing for an unfamiliar brand of pain that reached beyond my two front teeth and into my nose and cheeks. I felt as pathetic as my mother would later describe me being after the first operation to correct my faulty teeth. Probably more so. This time it hurt, and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to deserve it.

When Uncle John had finished, we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house where the scent of saffron enfolded me as I walked through the door. Yellow rice! My mouth still felt strange from the Novocain, but my stomach rumbled all the same. During the five-minute ride from Uncle John’s office, I’d toyed with the idea of losing my appetite in an effort to appear as pathetic as I felt. But that was before yellow rice entered the picture. I now remembered that I hadn’t eaten any lunch. Instead of resisting, I sat myself down in the high chair that occupied “Grandma’s corner,” nestled between the dishwasher and a row of wooden cabinets, and I watched her bustle about the kitchen preparing my favorite meal.

On any other day, I would have contributed to the preparation of this meal by sitting at the red-trimmed, aluminum kitchen table and sifting through the uncooked rice, plucking out the discolored and damaged grains prior to cooking. I’d inspect carefully, working through all two cups twice to ensure that only the flawless grains remained. Then Grandma would pour the lot into the Dutch oven style pot atop the stove to sauté in the sizzling butter that she would have already flavored with a fourth pound of ground beef. She always had a chuck roast or a beef shoulder boiling in a stock pot on the burner beside the rice for this meal. The broth from that pot she would add, one ladle at a time, into the rice as it steamed. But first came the wine—a deep burgundy measured in the same glass she served my apricot juice in on the mornings after I’d spent the night. She’d drizzle one full glass of wine over the rice that sautéed in the butter and beef. Grandma’s was a hearty yellow rice. Risotto, she sometimes called it. In that same juice glass, she’d stir several strands of saffron with a small amount of broth before adding the mixture to the rice. The saffron, my father would one day explain, made the rice yellow and gave it the pungent aroma and savory flavor I loved.

I watched Grandma ladle the beef broth into the rice as she stirred. Each grain absorbed the broth, softening and bloating as it cooked and soaking in flavor like a miniature sponge. Those grains would fuse together into a solid mass more like porridge than rice. In the meantime, Grandma heated more butter in a cast iron skillet and added chicken legs and thighs to roast on top the stove.

By the time we sat down to eat, the Novocain had worn mostly off, leaving behind a tenderness in my upper teeth and gums and a hint of curiosity in my food-fixated mind about how this might affect my meal. Grandpa sprinkled a thick topping of Parmesan cheese over the rice then scooped a serving onto my plate and passed it around the table toward me. After everyone’s plates had been filled, we blessed “us our Lord” for “these thy gifts” which we were “about to receive.” Then I picked up my fork and used the back of the rungs to press my mound of rice into a flattened disk over the circumference of the plate. This technique, I’d learned over the years, helped the rice to cool faster and provided a palette through which I could create what I thought of as train tracks as I ate my way through the helping. This day, I made those tracks by taking tiny bites and shifting the soft, sticky rice to the back of my mouth away from my sore front teeth. Yellow rice required minimal chewing and, for the first time ever, my mother permitted me to skip the chicken. I ate even slower than usual, savoring the salt of the cheese and robust tang of red wine against the earthy saffron and hearty beef. I held each bite on the back of my tongue, chewing slowly to extract all flavor before swallowing. No one made me hurry, and I took my slow, self-pitying time.

Riding home in the back of the Vista Cruiser that night, I leaned my head against the window and watched the shadows of trees blur by. The rain had stopped, and high clouds drifted in feathery wisps across the deep blue sky. My upper lip and gums had assumed a dull ache that balanced out the satiated comfort of my belly. I ran the tip of my tongue along the smooth, symmetrical edges of two new teeth. I wondered what my classmates might say about my front teeth now. Comments had been scarce the last time a procedure had transformed those teeth. I hoped they would not notice. My eyelids grew heavy as I thought about those past events, and before drifting off to sleep, another hopeful notion fluttered through my nine-year-old mind. If this was anything like last time, a peanut butter milkshake might grace my not-too-distant future. Maybe, I closed my eyes and considered, my two front teeth were lucky after all.

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