"How difficult it is to define just what amounts to monstrosity in that very ordinary appearance."
-- Edward J. Hughes
I have had better days. There I was with one grandchild proudly counting her loose and departed baby teeth, and the other showing off her nearly complete permanent set, when all eyes turned toward me. Knowing that brute honesty precedes tact in the maturation process, I braced myself for a bruising.
"Ooh! Your teeth are yellow. And crooked!"
OK, so I'm no beauty queen. I can take it. Still, for weeks afterward, whenever I came face to face with anyone, all I noticed was their teeth. And do you know what I found? The younger the person was, the more likely they were to have movie-star perfect teeth, but the closer they were to my age, the more often their teeth were even yellower or more crooked than mine. But maybe there's a reason for the disparity between the smiles of my generation and those of my grandchildren.
I was in the seventh grade when I went to the dentist for the first time, and before that series of appointments was over I would lose two permanent teeth and have 22 others filled.
Did I have negligent parents? Not at all. Toothaches were just more plentiful than money in our family. So we doctored with aspirin, hot-water bottles and toothache gum until the problem became too severe to treat ourselves or we could at least make a down payment on professional care. My father wasn't keen on dentists anyway. As he always said, "You're going to have false teeth by the time you're 35 -- as he did -- so why fill the ones you've got? Just wait 'till they rot and have 'em pulled. It's cheaper that way." (It's more painful, too, Daddy.)
Thankfully, though I've lost a half dozen more teeth and gained an assortment of crowns and bridgework since that childhood trauma, my present dentist and I have managed to keep the rest of my original teeth long past my father's predicted, toothless age.
We often speak of how little today's youth know about history, but with the rapid rise in technology between their childhood and ours we also forget how little they know about ordinary life just a short time ago. And, fearing their rolling-eye reaction, we keep that history to ourselves. But if anyone is interested enough to read on, here's what that ordinary life was like back then in the tooth department for many of my peers and me.
Besides our lack of money and medical insurance, we didn't have the education of today's generation. If we brushed our teeth once a day that was enough, and we never even heard of dental floss. No one came around to our wells with fluoride (or chlorine), either, and we were more likely to brush with baking soda than anything containing fluoride or a nice taste. And braces? Only the elite could afford such luxury, if, in fact, an orthodontist lived anywhere near our small New England town.
But when I became a better-educated, less-poverty-stricken parent, I vowed I would spare my children the toothaches and crooked-teeth embarrassment of my youth. Thus my boys had dental check-ups every six months like clockwork from the time they were 3.
All went fine until one night when our older child had reached seventh grade and, good mother that I was, I accompanied his younger brother to a PTO meeting because he had a part in the program. Mind you, the stay-at-home child had a full set of straight, white teeth in his mouth when we left, but while we were gone he took a spill from his bike -- and lost -- of his right front tooth when delicate enamel collided with sidewalk cement. Though a parent's best-laid plans often take a spill, too, as far as I know that's the last tooth my son lost for the next 20 years.
Alas, the die is cast for me, and the only solution to my grandchildren's embarrassment is for me to keep my mouth shut whenever I'm in public -- which may have other advantages as well. But if my attention to tooth detail rubbed off on their father, they'll not only keep their teeth well past age 35, but spare their own grandchildren the embarrassment I'm causing them now.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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