My great-grandmother used to terrify us by taking her teeth out. With a flick of her lower jaw they’d pop out into a shark’s double smile. We would shriek. The youngest of us started to cry. She would chuckle and chomp them back into place. To me so young, she was incomprehensible and slightly frightening: her shrunken body, her tree-ring skin, the earnest way she loved to sing and play with us children even though she didn’t always know our names.
I’ve finally developed a habit of flossing. “Just tell yourself it’s the best part of your day, and you’ll never want to miss it” a coworker advised. Maybe not the best part of my day, but satisfying. The gaps between my gums have widened. There’s more to dislodge, deeper canyons to evacuate.
The age at which we are old keeps getting pushed further out. How does one know when they’ve become old? If you can still climb mountains, and hold a headstand, and complete the Wednesday crossword, you aren’t any worse off than you were at 25, right? Even gray hairs become less terrifying once you have enough of them.
People said my dad’s mother looked like Norma Jean Baker when she was younger. I like to imagine her and my grandfather tearing up the streets of San Francisco in post-WWII elation. At her funeral I learned her drink of choice in those days was the Manhattan. When she had to get dentures, she was furious and bashful about being seen with her teeth out. It was just the front few, but she had to remove them to eat hard foods. Eventually grandma’s teeth on a napkin by her lunch plate while she ate an apple was normal. She even managed to find some humor in it, but only if she was making the jokes.
They say that if you have a nightmare about your teeth falling out it means that you’re worried about what people think of you. Most people I know have had this dream.
My father recently had some of his teeth replaced. I’ve been in denial about him being old. He still does all the things he’s always done—he golfs and hikes and he still paddles a kayak with more power and deftness than I can—but he walks with more of a stoop everytime I see him. And now he can use his finger to hold his cheek back and show you where the fake teeth are. I want him to live forever.
Even as I procrastinate making a dentist appointment, I inspect my gums in the mirror. They’ve receded like a low tide. My dentist keeps offering to refer me to a gum specialist for surgical grafting. I shudder. I resist plucking my newest gray hair.
Each tooth has a name, but I don’t know what they are. I want to name them for my ancestors. The two big ones in front I’ll name for my parents. My grandparents cluster around them in the front of my smile. As we reach the pointy teeth on the side, these are the generations that found California: the Russians and Italians who came on boats as children, the Irish clan that got into the Gold Rush hotel business. Behind them, in the ragged marbling of my molars, I can graze my tongue over the French and Germans who sought their fortune in a new nation. If I keep reaching back, way back, just before the void where my wisdom teeth would’ve been, where there are no more teeth to count, I find a Nigerian and a Brit. In the 18th century, these two had a child. I wonder if it was born in love or violence. Did this child get to be Black and proud for at least a moment, or was there a hasty urgency to pass? How quickly did evidence of this origin story get stirred away in the pan-European soup of our blood? The gaps in history loom with the gaps between my molars.
As I wash the bits I’ve flossed away down the sink, I think about my place in the links of time. I’ve decided not to have children. These bad gums will pass on to no one. There will be no one for me to frighten with my slow decay. When the flossing and the check ups and the pro-enamel health toothpaste finally fail, I’ll do my best to accept my replacement smile without a fuss. I will eat all the apples I want and maybe tell a joke or two.