When my parents moved to Colorado on a whim in the 1970s, my father was working as a surveyor when one day, he showed up to an office building as a departure point for a job and was stood up. The business across the hall invited him in to wait more comfortably. That business was a dental laboratory, and that became his unexpected career. As a result, teeth have been a leitmotif for all of my life. I even wrote my first book about family and teeth.
I grew up around and inside their business, first in a back room of a dentist’s office and then, eventually, a place of their own, air thick with porcelain dust and the antiseptic scent of enamel paint. My sister and I played with coils of wax, twirling our tools in the blue flame of the Bunsen burner, our hair pulled back tightly, under the watchful eye of our mother.
Perhaps this is why it is so frustrating to me that my mouth has never cooperated with my dogged attempts at hygiene. For most of my life, when I have visited the dentist, I have been told I need copious amounts of work. It began with basic fillings, then moved on to a gum graft at age 7, then root canals beginning in my 20s. I was lucky, in that stage, that my parents were still working; they made several of my crowns. My father was a true artisan. I carry them with me, an oddly non-biological reminder of a family from which I am willfully and healthily estranged.
Still, some of those crowns have been drilled through anew, as almost no endodontist has been able to combat my roots, which curve like scythes and wrap, sometimes, around bone. At this point, no molar has been untouched, and what’s more, I have had multiple root canals on the same teeth, a constant reopening of old and shameful wounds. A ruination, at times, of my father’s craft.
I have been to dentists who gape at my open mouth, and one hygienist, on looking at my x-rays on file, exclaimed, “What happened?” as though some kind of accident could have created the glowing jellyfish of my teeth on the film when lit from behind. There is a level of embarrassment I have come to expect of dentist’s visits at this point, as they are all surprised by how much work I have had done, considering my age.
My most recent visit was not without its complications (another cavity, which will require replacing the ancient filling from which it originates), nor commentary on the state of my mouth, but it was a different kind of conversation, and took me by surprise. Yes, the hygienist mentioned all of the work, but she also told me that my dental hygiene is impeccable, that she was hard pressed to find plaque, and that the work I have had done is either a result of the pH of my mouth, or possibly simply genetics.
Simply! To think that my parents, the tooth makers, could live within my mouths’ woes as more than metal and porcelain. I am aware of what I have inherited from them for the most part (good and bad) and I often joke about how things must be their fault on a cellular or DNA level, but the irony of having inherited weak teeth from people whose lives were centered around teeth — even our light switch place in the living room was a carved wooden molar — is almost too much. Too much to think about, too much to laugh at.
I was born with a heart murmur, and as a child, before any dental procedure, I was made to drink an antibiotic that tasted and looked much like Pepto Bismol, to prevent any bacteria from making its way to my heart. The murmur has since disappeared, but I still remember so clearly one or the other of my parents tipping back the plastic cup, to protect me, to usher me toward care.