My mother and I bonded over our teeth gaps. Wide enough to notice from far away any time we smiled open-mouthed, it was just one characteristic in a long list that proved what everyone in our family had been saying since my birth: I was my mother’s daughter. She had another daughter, and a son, but I was the one who inherited the gap between her front teeth, her hollow leg, her nail-biting habit, and, most significantly, her penchant for throwing emotional fits that my dad called, for whatever reason, “snits.”
In pictures, she presses the tip of her tongue against the back of the gap when she smiles. It looks self-conscious to me. There’s something defiant and a bit challenging in her expression, as if she’s making fun of the gap before the person behind the camera has a chance to do it first. It could be a defense mechanism, or a display of agency, or both, or neither, depending on who you are and how you look at it.
I used to be proud of my front-tooth gap, and felt so special that we shared it. But that feeling ebbed over the years, maybe as my kid confidence surrendered to pre-adolescent insecurity. I desperately wanted braces when I got them at age eleven. Now, as an adult, I think the tooth-gap would really suit me. But I don’t miss mine as much as I missed my mother’s when all her teeth rotted and she had to get dentures to replace them. The gap was gone twice, first with all the teeth. Second with the dentures so perfect, they looked like cartoon teeth. I didn’t like to see her with her dentures in. More often than not, I didn’t have to. In the last year of her life, she didn’t wear them because she didn’t really need them. She still smiled, but her smile had changed. It took me a long time to see that change as anything but a bad and terrible thing.
When I dream, my teeth stay firmly in my gums. I don’t dream about my teeth at all. I walk down long corridors in a house that is my house, but isn’t. I open random doors. I find my mother walking on a rope bridge, looking just as she did at thirty, strong and tall and just out of my reach. She doesn’t turn around to face me, or acknowledge me at all, but I don’t care. I follow her anyway. We don’t say a word to each other. Or maybe we do. I don’t remember by the time I wake up.