A Personal History of Teeth
Tooth and Nail
The year George Washington was inaugurated as the first American president, he had only one natural tooth remaining. His false teeth were made out of human and animal teeth, lead and ivory, not wood. He purchased some teeth from the mouths of his slaves. He named one of his hound dogs “Sweet Lips.”
At a family campout, my mother’s father told all of us cousins gathered around the fire to pay attention and listen while he told us a story. I don’t remember how it went or even what it was about. What I remember is how it ended. He stopped talking and backed into the darkness, away from the firelight for a moment while we waited, after he said, “…and guess what happened next?” We wiggled on our log benches. “What, Grandpa, what?” He stayed in the shadows for what seemed like forever. Then he came close again, leaned into the orange glow, and shot his false teeth out of his mouth and into his hand, grinning at us, transformed into a toothless monster. We screamed toward the sky.
My babysitter, Linda Crookshank, got high and triple-dog-dared me to yank out my two front teeth. The trouble was, they weren’t even loose. “If they come out early, you get triple the cash from the tooth fairy,” she said. I can still see my blood spattering on the mirrored counter in my grandmother’s bathroom as I knocked those teeth out of my head. When my parents returned, I was lying on the couch with my mouth stuffed full of teabags to stop the bleeding. The tooth fairy didn’t even pay double. Linda Crookshank did jail time for shop lifting and drug possession. I suffered through two years of grade school photos with no front teeth.
My father’s father kept dentures in a glass at the edge of the sink next to a toupee on a molded foam wig stand in our bathroom when he and my grandmother came to visit. The hair and the teeth scared me at night when I got up to pee. They looked huge and sinister in the glow of the little nightlight. His toupee looked like a hairy mushroom on the counter. It blew off his head one time at the beach and was tossed around on the sand like a dying bird.
The phrase “Tooth and nail” comes from the Latin, toto corpore atque omnibus ungulis, “with all the body and every nail.” The French, of course, have a more romantic way of fighting: bec et ongles, “beak and talons.” I’ve never fought with tooth and nail, clawing and biting and scratching. I came close once, when I was about twelve. One day, our mother sent my sister and me outside to fight. We were Methodists back then. We circled one another in the yard. She lunged at me. I leapt away. She got within striking distance, drew back her fist, squinted her eyes, and aimed at my face. I said to her, “Jesus says to turn the other cheek.” I put down my hands and turned my head sideways. “Go ahead,” I shouted, hands on hips. I stuck out my jaw and opened my mouth. She threw that punch as hard as she could.
My great-grandmother’s teeth clicked and clacked when she talked. I thought it made her sound mechanical, like a talking wind-up toy. I imagined turning a key inside her jaw. But when she went to the nursing home, they took her teeth out, put them in a paper sack next to the sink. Her face shrank in on itself like one of those dried apple dolls.
I once performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a dying lamb. It lived, but the mother rejected her. I had to tie the ewe to the barn stall while it jumped and kicked as I stripped milk from her tiny teats. I milked mama sheep several times a day, long enough to ensure the lamb got enough colostrum, the antibiotic, fat, and protein-rich first milk that the mother — all mothers — produce for the first days after birth. That mama fought tooth and hoof, but the lamb grew up just fine and won a blue ribbon at the fair. They say colostrum is important for health, that breastfeeding is important for dental and facial development. I was bottle-fed formula as an infant.
I know a poet who published an entire collection about his teeth. Each tooth has its own poem, and then some. I don’t have enough teeth for that. A bunch of mine were yanked to make room for braces, for my pretty smile. I was born with a mouth too small for my own teeth. Maybe my mother tried to breastfeed and my small mouth left marks. Maybe it closed too fast and too hard; maybe I hurt her first.
I once performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on my ex-husband’s great aunt, who fell and stopped breathing following an epileptic seizure. The root cause of her poor health was lack of dental care. She hadn’t been to a dentist since childhood. She had a fear of dentists that no amount of psychotherapy could cure. Her rotting teeth leaked poison into her blood. She eventually died from organ failure. Her breath smelled like death years before she passed. That day, on the kitchen floor, the sharp edge of one of her last remaining teeth split my lip as I pushed oxygen from my lungs into her frail body. When the paramedics arrived, I washed the stench of her saliva and my own blood from my face. I cried away my blood into the sink.
I thought I had cock-jaw once during a shameless foray into the world of BDSM. I went to the dentist with terrible jaw pain. I’d had a wisdom tooth removed months earlier, but it had long since healed. The dentist leaned over me with his little prodding tool and a mirror. “Have you had any jaw injuries lately?” Dirty deeds flashed into my mind. “Um…no,” I said, blushing. A week later, I felt something sharp with my tongue. I fished around with my fingers and pulled a thin piece of bone from my gum, apparently dislodged and left there following the surgery. With that sliver gone, the pain vanished, and with it, a part of myself.
My stepdaughter’s mother’s boyfriend, unlike George Washington, actually did carve himself a pair of dentures out of wood. For art, out of boredom, or to save money, we’ll never know. “He looks like a pirate,” my stepdaughter said. He named one of his guitars “Sweet Lips.”