Why Memoirs Have Disclaimers

Pre-ramble (that’s my ramble before the piece):  It’s super hot outside and so this piece takes you back to February of 1979, a very cold February.  It’s about memories and yes, that makes me pretty damn old this year.

I have said it before and I will say it again, my life growing up seemed uneventful to the point of most days being quite blurred one into the next.  I envy people I know who can write about their childhoods with vivid sensory descriptions because I don’t seem to have that.  I seem to be missing the scents and textures and sounds.  I have an odd catalog of snapshots in my brain that represent various personal family events and some local events.   Snapshots, not video snippets or Insta-story like memories, simple two-dimensional often black and white snapshot memories.

There were very few deaths that I recall growing up of members of our immediate or extended family or even family friends.  When they did occur, as children, we were not included in the funeral home showings or the funerals themselves.  Death was something that occurred on television and in the papers to other people often in sensationalized manners.  In a small town there is very little that is newsworthy going on outside of politics and sports.

I do, though, have an odd memory of a small child going missing just two and a half miles from where we lived.  I wonder if this was the beginning of my obsession with missing persons.  How do people just disappear?  How is that possible? I recently decided to look up this missing child, who I do recall was found deceased days later victim of an accidental death in a large container used for storage of newspapers bound for the recycling plant.  The container was located at a church less than a hundred yards from the child’s home. That was the extent of my memory, vivid primarily in its tragic theme, and only a bit of this has turned out to be correct now that I have done some research.

I find it interesting how much I remembered and how much was incorrect and colored with assumption over time.  Most of our memories are distorted from retelling these memories, even in our heads, over and over.  Facts get distorted, if we even had all of them to begin with.  That’s why memoirs are not called biographies.  They are filled with perception and enhancement.

I assumed this event took place when I was fairly young, 10 or 11.  My initial search parameters were based on the age that I assumed I was, plus or minus a few years, from 1965 to 1975.  That covers me from age 4 to 14.  I found nothing.  How was that possible? This was a missing child.  That was hugely newsworthy and nothing came up?  I decided to extend the upper parameter to 1980.  Not until I expanded my date range search in newspapers.com did I locate the first of a series of articles on the disappearance.  It took place my senior year in high school: 1979.  Truth be told, I was an immature seventeen as a senior, so maybe my thinking I was younger makes sense?  (To this day I like to present myself as 10 years younger than I am.)

That wasn’t the only glaring error in my memory.

The child wasn’t six or seven as I had implanted I my brain but middle school age: 14.  I was older than I had recollected and so it does not surprise that so were the missing.  Bigger error though was that it was not just one boy but two eighth graders who had gone missing.  Both students at the middle school I had gone to just four years before.  That makes the mystery of a disappearance all the more baffling to me as it did to their parents and the authorities at the time.

One person disappears, there are a host of different scenarios that the brain can play out for you in wonderment.  But two people, two boys, how can two boys disappear together?  Were they taken?  Did they run away?  If one had gotten hurt, the other could surely have helped him or gone for help.  If someone was trying to kidnap two boys, surely one would get free and run for help.

They went missing on a cold Sunday afternoon in February and the disappearance was front page news on Monday morning.  One of their parents had tried to take them to a movie at the nearby Rolling Acres Mall but it was sold out.  They returned home and went out together to look for beer cans for their collections.  They never returned.

They would be found right away, alive – that was the hope.  But snow overnight had covered their tracks in the snow.  They were front page on Tuesday and on Wednesday. Tips had not panned out.  Neither helicopter nor ground searches had come up with anything.  A tracking dog had followed their scent from the home of one of the boys a short distance away to a car wash where they had found beer cans for their collection previously.  My younger brother had collected beer cans around that time, too.

The dog stopped near a large container (the size of a semitruck or rail car) where people would stop and drop off bags and bundles of newspapers.  All homes got at least one if not two major daily papers and the smaller weekly papers in those days.  Papers would accumulate and burning them had become frowned upon. We saved ours in grocery store paper bags and would drop them off in this same container that was parked near the church.  It was a church fundraiser.  Not our church, but it didn’t matter. People were not always mindful about stacking their drop-offs neatly.  Some would but then others would just pitch their papers in from the open end, creating a slippery, sliding mass.  The doors of the container were always open.  I remember looking inside once.  It seemed awfully dark, too dark for me to want to brave entering.

The search dog stopped near the windowless container but did not go inside.  People later said they looked inside but saw nothing. Everyone seemed confident there was nothing inside but newspapers.

Anytime a child goes missing, minds wander off to abduction, molestation and worse.  Again, started the inevitable cautions to children of all ages to be more aware, more careful.  Parents who could hug their children no doubt felt somewhat relieved and maybe a little guilty because of it.  It was so cold at night in February in Ohio.  So cold.

On Wednesday the newspaper container was picked up, placed on a trailer and driven away into the city where the containers were emptied out.  Again, my recollection failed me.  I assumed it was still there at the spot near their home when the boys were found.  That is what I had in my snapshot of the memory. It seems interesting to me that it was even allowed to have been removed from a location so close to the target sight of the disappearance.

The bodies of the two boys were discovered among the contents of the container at the recycle plant after having spent the three and a half days so close to home.  The parents continued to feel foul play was involved.  It must have been, right?  But those that saw the bodies said that there was no appearance of foul play.  And the coroner’s report a month later would concur.  There were only signs that the boys had tried to free themselves from the crush of newspapers that may have smothered them or at the very least held them trapped until the cold temperatures took them.

Now that I found the clippings, have seen their faces and those of their parents in the grainy newspaper photos and have read the full details that are available, I have more of the story.  It makes clearer the memory in a way and yet now it is as though I have two different recollections running parallel to one and other in my mind.  I have my own recollection and the newspaper retelling. I am not sure I did myself any good by clearing up the details to be honest.

It does make me wonder about and perhaps take greater care when writing about my own personal memories of home and family.  They are my perceptions, my view from where I sat or stood.  My angle may not have been the best angle.  I know from asking my brothers about specific memories that we recall them very differently.  And most of them can’t be googled.  I process my memories through my writing in the hopes that I can at the very least achieve a sense of understanding of them and growth from them.

Post-ramble (that’s a bit after the piece):  Take memoirs with a grain.  Don’t label them lies or sensationalized, though some are.  Just as we do with anything we read, learn from it what you can and leave the rest.

Close But Not That Close

One of my cousins died last week. One of the 36 at my generational level on my mother’s side – which, I can tell you, spreads so far across the ancestry.com page that it is impossible to print.  My mother was one of 7 children–not counting my grandfather’s son from his first marriage.  He wasn’t divorced, but was widowed by the flu epidemic of 1919.  That son was called a cousin my entire life, but was really my mother’s half-brother and my uncle.  That first showed me that families have some flexibility in their bonds.  I have no recollection of ever having met him as he lived in upstate NY and we were in Ohio, two states which were further apart in the mid 1900’s than they are today.

Of my mother’s other six siblings only one had moved fairly far away to live, in Atlanta. The rest of us remained clustered in Northeast Ohio.  Considering the six families were all within an hour’s drive of one another we generally only saw each other at special occasions:  First Communions, wedding showers, which were for the ladies only at that time, the subsequent weddings and baby showers, also ladies only.  There were many years during which this was constant getting together, but as we grew older it became less and less often.  We were close but not that close.

I can only assume that even though we were geographically near one another’s families, there were other things that needed to be done that kept us apart except on those special occasions.  Work, school, home – obligations.  I recall more often getting together with the daughters of one of my father’s friends, who we referred to as cousins; and, of course, the kids in the neighborhood.  Even within my own household, we were close but not that close.  It seemed everyone was busy with their own stuff.  I grew up with characters in storybooks as my closest friends.

My father worked 40 plus hours a week at a factory.  When he came home at night, we had supper on the table as he walked through the door. Then he would read the paper or a book, watch the news and go to bed.  We all had roles, chores, expectations of behavior.  My father would take my mother grocery shopping on Saturday mornings at the Acme in our small town, for a long time with all five of us in tow.  We were all too young to be left home alone.  And believe me, we never made a peep at the store, never begged for snacks while we were there or strayed more than to the end of the aisle in which she was shopping.  We knew better.

Growing up we learned of people’s deaths, usually someone much older, by reading the obits in the local paper every morning first thing or from a phone call.  It was as though there was an informal phone tree. Someone called two people and they each called two people and they each called two people and so on and so forth until the entire day the wires over the area were buzzing with the news and plans for casseroles and which funeral home would it be at – the one on the lake or that other one.

When word of my cousin’s death came via Facebook, where I am connected to only a small handful of the 36, I hesitated for a moment to comment on his sisters’ profiles.  I didn’t feel close enough to make a comment, but it was the expected thing to do, wasn’t it?  Should I send a private message instead?  I consider us friends, but not close friends.  I finally decided to leave the comment that “friends, not close friends” leave.  You know the one, “So sorry for your loss!” with the exclamation point for extra sympathetic emphasis.   It was just a couple down from my younger brother’s similar comment.  That was only the tiniest bit comforting in terms of my choice.

Any other time of the year the few blood relations on my social media page are treated the same as other acquaintances.  I like what I like, ignore what I don’t and snooze them for a while during elections.  A death puts me in the awkward position of questioning blood vs. chosen family, a debate I have had many times over the years.  My chosen family – a very small group of close friends that I have made as an adult, people who actually have taken the time to truly get to know me, people who I know I can go to when in need, they are my family.  How strong should the blood bond be considered if it is just that tiny fluid strand and nothing more?  If there is no substance to support it, it is not “thicker than water” at all.  It is simply an anemic reference.

Yes, I care.  I have compassion.  I feel for my cousin’s family – his children and their children of whom I have no direct experience.  I feel for his sisters and brothers, who, I assume, will miss him. It isn’t the devastating feeling that I had after my mother died.  Or, the flip side, relief when my father died.  His life and death really taught me that a blood bond does not automatically come with honor or trust.  I am somewhere in between for people with whom I have that acquaintance relationship.  It is a loss and I do feel that loss.

I believe that you grow up with the family into which you were born or adopted.  It’s like an incubator.  Some incubators provide more nourishment and protection than others. Some provide more opportunities than others.  Some have more warmth than others and develop the deeper friendship/family bond.  Often you escape from that incubator to create your own space, your own nourishment, your own opportunities with your own family who will likely view you in the same manner that you have viewed those who came before you.  Close but not that close.

I don’t feel I learned to attach as a child and I do not have an answer to the question why. Attachment bonds are one of those things that psychologist and psychiatrists will continue to mull over for centuries.  What can ensure that a child will develop a deep, lasting attachment to its family?  What can ensure that life experiences will maintain the blood connections over time and space? We were together every minute as children, in a very small house and I am only truly connected to my mother and one of four brothers.  How do modern families of today constantly on the road to extra-curricular activities create a knowing, loving bond in their own home let alone with extended relatives?  What can keep us together beyond the algorithms of a social media account?

“So sorry for your loss.” I had commented after some thought.

“Your loss, too.”  Came the comment back from my cousin.  Was it? I wondered, my hand frozen over my mouse, the cursor blinking, demanding a reply.  Was it my loss, too?

In that a human being is no longer on this earth, yes, it is everyone’s loss.  A deeper personal loss for me, no.  I did not attach to my immediate family when I was young and did not attach to my many cousins.  I am not feeling an attachment suddenly as an adult. That is not to say that one could not have been created or could not be created now.  Anything is possible but we would have to come together as people and make the effort to get to know each other, then, if we became family, I would feel that loss more deeply.

 

 

It’s All About the Gravy

I was watching the semi-finals of a children’s cooking competition show this morning, when a small ten-year-old boy began to make gravy for his roast pheasant.  I realize that the fact that a ten-year-old can roast a pheasant is the real story, but for me the story is always about the gravy.

I saw him pour the drippings directly into the pan and “Oh No,” escaped my lips, “He can’t…” I whispered.

An older boy nearby stepped over and asked him, “Are you starting with a roux?”

“Yes, a roux, say YES,” I willed him as he up-ended a bag of flour straight into the pan of drippings and the older boy backed slowly away.

“NOOOOOOOO!!” I howled alone in my living room causing the cats to both exit to somewhere quieter.  Even they knew this was considered a high crime against the culinary arts to create gravy in this manner.

Growing up my mom made gravy every Sunday to go with our Roast Beef and mashed potatoes.  That was Sunday Dinner, a large chunk of meat, a potato dish and a veggie dish. Sometimes the vegetable was green beans and sometimes carrots.  I always felt cooked carrots were only edible with gravy – most food is.  And if I didn’t want to eat them, I could bury them in the mashed potatoes.

As a child of six my part in the gravy making was a small one.  Being eye level with the stove created a safety issue so I was given what tasks I could do that kept me busy and out of trouble.  It was my job to shake a baby food jar of flour and water.  This was the thickening agent my mother would use–a thoroughly shaken (not stirred) flour and water mixture.

The meat would be removed from the pan and set aside to rest.  Amid the drippings of fat and broth, bits of cooked onion, my mother would add water and stir to remove any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan.  As she deglazed the pan, and I don’t know that she ever even knew this term for what she was doing to flavor our gravy, I shook the baby food jar.  I would shake and shake as I danced around the kitchen.

“Is it enough?” I would ask stopping several times to have her check it before she would finally say, “Yes, now.”  The lid would come off and it would be stirred into the simmering base.  The color would shift from a dark brown to a light tan as the flour-water was fully incorporated and began to heat.

“It’s bubbling!  It’s bubbling!” I would announce indicating that I felt it was nearly done.  My mother would stop stirring it with a fork and turn the heat off.  I would hunt for a ladle in the drawer of utensils while she got a medium sized bowl out of the cupboard.  The gravy boat was for holidays.  On everyday Sundays, a bowl was good enough for the gravy.  

Only then, once the gravy hit the table, was everyone called in to eat. Inevitably, my father would recall the first Sunday dinner my mother made just after they were married in the late 1950’s. Friends were invited and there was an uncomfortable pause prior to eating.

“Which one is the gravy?” my Uncle Tom had asked.  Apparently, it was far from obvious that it was a liquid.  Oh dear!  No worries, she continued to make Sunday dinners and over the years the gravy improved greatly.

I don’t know what my mother’s method of gravy making was called, but when I was in college, I learned to start gravy from a roux: equal parts butter and flour.  I learned to melt a stick of butter (that’s universally a half cup) and then add to it a half cup of flour.  This would be blended together with a fork until a thick paste was created.  It was a beautiful dark caramel colored paste.  Slowly, very slowly broth would be poured into the pan and stirred quickly with a whisk.  The whisk made a scraping sound against the bottom of the pan like a whisper.  “Stir, stir, stir,” it said.

When my roux-based gravy was complete, it had a silky finish and coated a spoon perfectly (the doneness test).  It was not chunky or lumpy and never so solid that it required verbal confirmation to differentiate it from the meat dish.  After making it once at home, I became the official family gravy maker and we never saw the baby food jar again.

When I moved out on my own, my first solo Thanksgiving dinner included my roux and the silky result.  I was impressed that somehow, I had managed to get each dish to complete at the same time.  That my mother could do that always amazed me.

I have never been one to entertain and now, being gluten free, my old friend the flour roux was no longer an option.   Being single at the holidays leads to inevitable invitations from well-meaning people to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with them.  Sometimes you get to help with the cooking, sometimes you don’t.

I used to offer to make the gravy but I don’t anymore.  One woman saw me using an entire stick of butter and seemed to feel that I was attempting to kill her family with fat. I was unaware how afraid of wonderful things like butter and bacon she was.  It’s really very sad.

What was her preferred method of making gravy?  With the giant turkey resting on a platter in the middle of the kitchen island among dishes of cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes and stuffing, she opens a cupboard and pulls out a bag of flour.  She up-ends it into the pan of drippings and starts to stir the dry powder directly in.

I nearly fainted the first time I saw this.  Now my stomach just flip-flops a little as I thank God that I am gluten free and won’t have to eat it.  Yes, it clumps. Yes, it lumps.  After it bubbles and thickens, but never enough to coat a spoon because that would mean patiently waiting for the flavors to develop and the broth to reduce, she pours the watery liquid through a strainer to captures all the lumps whether flavorful or flour.  Into the gravy boat it goes, where it stays until long after the meal is over.  That is one thing that is remarkably different from my home growing up.  We never had leftover gravy.

The gravy the little boy served to the judges on Top Chef Junior had been allowed to thicken, perhaps a little too much.  The camera zoomed in on it being poured from the spout of the gravy boat and it wouldn’t.  It wouldn’t pour.  It was coaxed out onto the plates and the judges very kindly told him what a nice flavor it had.  He went home that episode.  He was a lovely, kind, sweet little boy and one day he will learn that all gravy should start as a roux.

Others will never learn.

 

#cooking #gravy

Unbreakable

I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t at all that I am missing memories.  It is just that everyday growing up was much the same as every other day.  Every month the same as every other month.  Every year…you get where I am going with this.

For example, every meal we ate as a family ended with the table being cleared, plates scraped into a bowl for the dog, whatever dog was present at the time – my father gave them all the same name – Gypsy. Hot soapy water prepared and the dishes washed by hand by my mother and dried and put away by me into the cupboards across the room.  Let’s say we ignore breakfast and count lunch and dinner – two meals a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for twenty years – That’s roughly 14,560 times we stood at that old ceramic sink and washed and dried dishes together, my mother and me. I don’t even want to figure out how many times I crossed that room to put away dishes.  It was a mundane task, performed repeatedly.  It blurs in the mind.  Laughter, tears, happiness, fear – that’s what makes one monotonous event stand out from the others in the fog of decades.  We weren’t exactly an emotional family.

I do remember the day the Corel dinner plate broke.  It was subtle, silent break lurking beneath the sudsy dishwater in the plastic dishpan in the sink.  My mother reached in and very quickly drew back her hand. Blood was already spreading from the slice through the calloused skin on her finger. It dripped back into the water coloring the soap bubbles.

“What happened?” I asked grabbing a towel to wrap her finger in.

“I don’t know.  Something bit me,” she said in disbelief.  How would a piranha have gotten into the dishwater?  I wondered but knew better than to make a joke.

I spilled the water from the dishpan slowly into the basin of the old ceramic sink. The dishes and silverware inside rose up as the tide retreated.  I thought perhaps one of the sharp knives we’d used for cutting the vegetables for dinner might have gotten her.  None appeared in the jumble. Then I saw something out of place.  Large and small white pieces of a dinner plate that had shattered at the bottom of the dishpan.

It wasn’t a deep cut.  The bleeding stopped quickly.  She supervised as I sorted out the spoons, forks, knives and other remnants of the meal we just ate from the harsh-edged pieces of the plate.  Like the forensic buffs that we were, we arranged the pieces on a towel on the counter and examined them.  It was splintered into a group of shards spiraling out from the center of the plate that used to be: Unbreakable.  That’s why we bought them, they were unbreakable.  Each broken piece tapered down to a fine point and looked worthy of a role as murder weapon in any domestic violence plot on television.

“Bandaid.”  My mother repeated.  I had been too deep in my examination of the pieces to have heard her first request.  “And Neosporin, I know,”  I responded turning for the first aid in the cupboard across the room.  Neosporin and a Bandaid were as important in our medicine cabinet as duct tape was in the tool box.

“I’ll finish the dishes,” I said.   I put everything back into the dishpan and cleared any additional broken pieces out of the basin.  Hot water was soon running and bubbling up.

“Be careful,”  she warned.

I had an odd desire to save the broken pieces.  For what?  I loved a good jigsaw puzzle.  It was kind of like that.  I was curious to see if we had all the pieces.  Curious to see if I could put it back together in a way that it wouldn’t be noticed.  It was a break in our routine.  It was broken and I always had a need to fix.  My mother swept them into a trash can as I was considering the possibilities.  There would be no fixing.

She was considering other possibilities as she shook the towel out over the trash can. “If one broke, any of them could break.”   Dinner plates, desert plates, cereal bowls, tea cups….one break and her trust was broken for the entire remainder of the set.  I nodded in agreement as I rinsed and placed each item in its usual spot in the drainer to the left of the sink.

It is the breaks I remember – the disruptions to the monotony.  Different types of glass break differently, causing different injuries.  It is the same with family.

The dish that broke that day had clean cracks that opened from a particular point of some stress.  A cut from them was a neat slice, not ragged, and would heal with little to no scar, especially if the area was cleaned and the Neosporin had been applied quickly enough.   There would be little memory of it.

Some cuts, from dull edges tear the skin more than slice it, creating a ragged edge to the wound.  First aid will do what it can.  It will heal, but it will be a lasting visual reminder.

Some glass creates small crumbs, deceivingly rounded looking but with sharp facets that can get ground into your skin.  Too small to be rinsed away or extracted.  Later they rise to the surface one by one to continually remind you of the pain that caused them initially.   Those memories are hard to escape from.

Most of the breaks in our family cut you like that, like sand when you skinned your knee but much worse.  They are small pieces burrowed deep into me, that I cannot forget because there is too much emotion attached.  I long for the ones I don’t have cluttering my mind.  There would be a peacefulness to their day to day sameness, their monotony.  There would be a lack of emotion that still connects me to the experiences but at the same time disconnects me.

 

#iremember #idontremember #unbreakable #broken

Let’s Talk Teeth

Let’s talk teeth.  They are, after all, forefront on my mind since I had Number 10 pulled and the pain began the next day and never stopped.  I’ve had teeth pulled before and the pain generally stops once the offending tooth is removed.  This tooth was not in pain to start with, so I had gone into this with an inflated sense of confidence that everything would be easy.   I’ve been to the dentist five times this past week and a half.  Once to the oral surgeon who did the ever so gentle ‘yanking out’ of the tooth and four other times to my own dentist for follow-up or what we might call “why am I still in pain appointments”.

The politically correct term for the ‘yanking out’ of the tooth is extraction.  And to be honest, the oral surgeon was a nice lady and she did get it out in one piece with minimal stress.  Making the left turn out of her parking lot onto a very busy street was actually more stressful.  Yes, I broke my long-standing practice of avoiding left turns.  Left turns, in my opinion, tend to inconvenience others which attracts attention to me that I don’t want. Left turns take extra time while I wait for my ‘window’ of opportunity and create a situation where I could be hit by cars coming from either direction rather than just the one direction, resulting in an accident which would be more inconvenience.  I don’t care for inconvenience.  So unless there is a light with a left arrow, I avoid left turns.  Try moving about the planet with that mindset.  The alternative here was a right turn taking me into downtown and no one wants to do that if they do not have to.  Or is that just me?

So there I sat edging my way out onto Broad Street, four lanes wide, with a giant gauze blob sticking out of my mouth.  You see, prior to the extraction, the oral surgeon had to remove the temporary bridge I was wearing.  I call it the “Bridge of Dreams”.  It is what I always wanted my front teeth to look like. Like everyone else, straight, orderly, no giant gaps because of one tooth that opted to be shy and grow inward. She tried hard to hide the pair of pliers she used to pull the bridge out first but I saw them as well as the other tool for the extraction itself.  After the extraction and a single, ‘it will fall out on its own’ stitch, she replaced the bridge and gave me gauze to bite down on.

“Keep your mouth shut until you get to Dr. Thomas’s office,” were my instructions after writing the check for $275.00 and handing it over to the receptionist.  The gauze would help with the clotting and keep the bridge in place until Dr. Thomas could reset the temporary bridge.

I had asked the oral surgeon’s nurse prior to the procedure, “Could I have the tooth?  I’ve never asked for one before, but this one is symbolic,” I said.

Part of me was looking forward to this. It was a big step. She smiled politely and said yes. I could almost hear her rolling her eyes.

“So you want to put it under your pillow?”  the oral surgeon asked when I repeated the request. I wasn’t taking any chances that I hadn’t been heard.

“No,” I said, starting to get annoyed by the wait and now a silly question.  I had been a half hour early, typical me; they were running a half hour late, typical them and then no one could seem to unzip the email attachment with the tooth’s x-ray attached for their reference. I almost got up out of the chair to offer my help.  My sense of calm, which I had carefully prepared over the past month, was starting to wear thin now that ‘yanking’ of the tooth was eminent.

“It’s symbolic.” I said more to myself then to her.  I was not explaining this again. I was 55 years old and this tooth had been in my way for nearly my whole life, you do the math. I was ready, let’s do it.

My oldest brother had a similar tooth, but his grew outward.  I vividly remember the day we took him to an oral surgeon when I was around five, he ten.  I remember the waiting room was busy and my mother took us out in the hall to wait.  It was gray.  Everything, the walls, the floor, the ceiling.  At least in the waiting room there had been some children’s magazines – Highlights – I loved the hidden picture puzzles.  Why did we have to be pulled away from those?  We were milling around in the hall when we heard my brother screaming.  Not a normal shriek, but a bloody murder painful scream that lives in memories for a long time.  Apparently we’d gone to wait at the exact wrong end of the hall if my mother had been trying to protect us from anything scary.

We didn’t spend any extra time at dentists after that.  When my own wonky tooth came in, growing inward instead of outward as his did, it was decided that it could be left alone.  I used to try and try to push it outward with my tongue so that it was in the right place. So that I could smile and it would look like everyone else.  But had I been asked if I wanted it removed, I would have said a very definite “NO, Thank you,” remembering that scream and the condition of my brother after his appointment.

What about braces for me later?  While I know that the real issue was money, an equally large part of the issue was fear.  Fear and money probably keep people from doing a lot of things in their lives.

Braces would have costs thousands of dollars, even then.  It was the early seventies and my father was either on strike or laid off at least once every year for a period of several months.  My mother was already making what we had go as far as possible.  Not only would braces have been a large expense, but they would have meant endless extra visits to a dentist for adjustment.  My mother did not drive and the idea that my father would set aside this time was not an idea anyone would entertain.  It would have created inconvenience.  And then there was the potential for pain.  Braces are painful.  Painful to put in, painful to wear, painful to adjust.  Wires….those could not possibly be gentle in anyone’s mouth.  To have a child in pain, would have been a constant distraction from all of my mother’s daily chores and obligations taking care of a large family.

So braces had never been an option.  I was silent as a child for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was embarrassment over that tooth. I got the message.  Keep your mouth shut.  Don’t speak unless you are spoken to.  Don’t contradict an adult even when they are wrong.  Don’t be stupid. Don’t be smart.  Don’t be a smartass.  Do not question. In teaching me to not be outspoken, I was silenced. The tooth just created a physical reason to stay that way.

We did go for regular dental check-ups and once in a while I had cavities that had to be filled.  Dear old Dr. Herrmann was our regular dentist.  I am sure he only seemed old.  The office smelled of antiseptic, but as he got close all I smelled was cigarette smoke.  Later I heard he drank a lot at the office.  I never smelled that.  Considering all the drinkers in the family, I might have found the scent of whiskey comforting.  Even so, it was always more the fear of pain, then the actual pain that was the real issue.  It still is.  Imagination mixed with a little memory are powerfully dangerous in terms of my anticipation.

So why now, why at 55?  About four years ago, around the time I was changing, I was referred by a friend to my current dentist for a broken tooth.  I had the money that I had not had in the past and wanted to take care of a few other teeth as well.  I’d lived with that wayward tooth for my whole life. It had not crossed my mind that it, too, could be taken care of.  This was around the time I had stopped eating wheat and discovered I was a different person – I had less anxiety, less depression, was less withdrawn and less introverted.  It was at the beginning of the new me so why not a new mouth?  During one visit, while Dr. Thomas was joking and putting me at ease, I noticed that he had something in his hand.  He had taken a little bit of putty they use and fashioned a tiny tooth.

“I’ve been thinking about something,” he said, “Open and I’ll show you.”  I opened.  He tucked the little tooth into the gap created by Number 10 hiding mostly behind where it should be.  Laura, the tech that supported him smiled and handed me a mirror.

“Have a look,” he said.  “What do you think?”

What could I think?  Wow!  WOW!  It fit right in, it made my front teeth look….normal for the first time in my life.

“That’s cool,” I said, “But…”  There were always ‘buts’.

“We have a plan, remember, and there are a lot of other teeth to take care of first.  It’s just something for you to think about.  First you should talk to others about options.  I would make you a bridge, but an orthodontist can tell you if braces are an option and I have someone you can speak to about implants to see if those options are something you want to pursue.  We will work on our plan and you can start doing your research.”

It was something to think about.  And it was pretty much all I could think about.  I used to get bored with work and Photoshop a tooth into that spot on my picture just to remind myself what he had shown me. I wanted that tooth.  I wanted it right away.  But we had a plan, so other work was done first.  And there was the money.  I would have the money but it needed to be spread out over the next several years.

I visited three different orthodontists about braces.  The first was a younger doctor who took one look in my mouth and at me.  I suppose I looked to him an unattractive, overweight older woman with some sort of vanity issue.

“It’s not going to make any difference in your life to have this fixed,” he informed me.   I heard the words “so why bother” after.   I cried for three days and did not see the next orthodontist for six months.

The next one ran what appeared to me clearly a “braces mill”.  It was an extremely busy office with an open floorplan exam area.  It had a trendy feel with one high-tech chair after another lined up like a hair salon with sparkling mouthed teenagers streaming in and out.  To their mind everyone should have braces and their expensive equipment and fancy cars in the parking lot supported that.

The third and final orthodontist was a very down to earth older fellow who spent a lot of time gently measuring my mouth.

“Wow, your mouth opens really wide,”  he announced putting his ruler away.

“Are you trying to tell me I have a big mouth?” I asked.

“I don’t really know you well enough to make that judgment.”

We had a nice rapport quickly.  If I wanted braces, yes, there would be discomfort, yes, it would take years, but, yes this tooth could be brought into line with the others over time.  It was the no bullshit approach to which I responded well.  If I had opted for the braces route, you know which I would have picked no doubt?

I visited one specialist about implants.  As she drove a metal pick into my mouth repeatedly making me squirm and cry out, I had images of doctors in death camps torturing prisoners.  She was very German and very cold.  Wait a sec, I’m German!

So for years, we’ve worked our plan.   A repaired root canal here, new root canal and a bridge there with time in between to heal and forget any “discomfort”.  My dentist knows how to make me comfortable.  He and his staff have taught me it is okay to be honest and to speak.  I can ask for a neck pillow.  I can request to wear the lead vest even when I am not getting x-rays (try it, it is super comforting).  And the best part.

“Here’s your puzzle for the day,”

My dentist will enter and tape a post-it to the light over my head.  I started that when I was trying to distract myself from my anxiety during one of my early visits and I noticed a company name inside that bright light over my head.  I started to list words in my head using the letters of that company’s name. Of course, I had rules. I always have rules.  No words under three letters, no proper names, etc.  I found 45 words.  It had great vowels. He caught on that I was doing something and asked.  Now, every appointment, he adds a new word on a post-it to that light so I have a new game to play.  He has tried to give me logic puzzles and number puzzles but nothing works as well as a word puzzle for me in that situation.

During this week of pain that would not stop.  I called his office.  I texted him at home.  He always says come in.  There is never any hesitation and no issue that I do not have an appointment.  First we removed the ‘it will dissolve on its own’ stitch.  It was under the bridge and perhaps rubbing it the wrong way.  It looked like a huge rope!  I was sure that was the culprit.  It wasn’t.  I went back.  They squeezed me in again.  I was concerned I was wearing out my welcome.

Dr. Thomas tried to remove the temporary bridge that had been removed several times that week.  This one time, I nearly jumped out of the chair.  Bring on the Novacain.  Dr. Thomas went to check on a patient with an appointment while the drug took affect.   Very quickly my upper lip felt as though it expanded several feet out from my face and then deflated into a cold, unfeeling, fleshy fold over my teeth.  Laura left the room for a moment and I happened to reach up and touch my nose. That was a huge mistake.

I couldn’t feel my nose.  “Oh my God,” I thought,  “I am alone here and I am going to suffocate to death!”  Some rational part of my mind that I am not generally in touch with took over, “You can breathe through your nose even without feeling your nose,” it said.  Then it repeated it over and over again.  After a number of repetitions, I stopped believing it.  Laura returned to the room just as I was about to panic out loud.

“Oh dear,” she said in a tone worthy of a nurse in a mental ward, “I left you alone too long.”  And look what I’ve gone and done. I’ve gotten myself into a state.

She made me take deep breaths and let them out slowly.  I was okay around the fourth breath, but she went on to seven.  It was exhausting. The bridge was removed and shaved down inside and replaced.  When the Novocain wore off that day, I had the strangest feeling.  I felt normal. There was no pain.  There was no discomfort.  It was as though the tooth had not even been extracted.  My tongue knew it had, because it keeps checking.  It wasn’t there.

(I know….ewww)

After all, I had it in an envelope.  My first impression of it, laying there in my hand, was that it was smaller than I’d imagined.  It had seemed so large and out of place in my mouth all those years. But it was, in reality, so small.  The tip was bent.  It probably should not have come out so easily or in one piece.  But it did, and I have it.  It is, after all, symbolic.

In a few months, the permanent bridge will be placed.  The plan will be complete.  This year is the year.