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.

9 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    Samantha, your piece really stuck with me. I got hooked on the first paragraph, focusing on the gap, and again at the end when the narrator follows her mother onto the tight rope. I think about all the other gaps, not just the teeth–gaps in communication, the gap between the mother and narrator on the tight rope. It’s a really lovely piece about loss and I really like how you pointedly write that the narrator doesn’t have dreams where their teeth fall out, as the reader might assume the narrator would. Also, I like the second paragraph because it gives me some insight into the mother’s character. Maybe some more of that insight would be good to sprinkle into the third paragraph as well. I want to know more about her. She’s such a central figure in this piece. Also, if you want, I think you can take out this last sentence in the second paragraph: “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 feel like the reader already knows this or could see it from what you’ve described before. The part about her making the joke before the photographer does is really beautiful, and I want that to stand out as much as possible. Also with the last sentence of the third paragraph: “It took me a long time to see that change as anything but a bad and terrible thing.” I find myself wanting to know more about this. Maybe here is an area to explore a bit more. Maybe do a freewrite just on this sentence and see what comes up with regard to the mother and the loss of her teeth. Just some thoughts. I really love this. It definitely resonated with me and I appreciate you sharing!

  2. Bud Smith

    Hello Samantha,
    This is so powerful. this is magic sword writing right here. First you establish this: “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.”

    Then you take the gap teeth away from the daughter, separating her from her mother at age 11 and then the mother’s teeth rot out and become dentures, cartoons. Wow. Both women lose their ‘bond’ in reality and as would be captured in reality (I am thinking of the camera’s eye) but that bond remains in dreams. Where some people can dream that their teeth fall out, instead this narrator dreams that their teeth are fine, were just fine how they were and they follow their mother on a tight rope farther into the perfect fantasy world of one’s self — exquisite. This is one of the coolest pieces of writing I’ve read in years. Send it somewhere really special. <3

  3. Taylor Grieshober

    Sam!
    Oh Lord, I felt this one so hard. “I was my mother’s daughter.” –how many times have I been told this very thing? And how often is it used as a sly insult, like something we should be ashamed of when really it’s something to embrace. That’s what you’ve done here I think, created a character who embraces what she has of her mothers’ and finds stoic beauty in it. I love how you’ve taken an object and magnified it here. Teeth are so symbolic and I felt like you were doing a little wink when the narrator says she doesn’t dream about teeth–it’s like you’re saying, look, I know, I’m writing about teeth but you’ve never seen it done like this. It felt like you were playing with the idea of receding here and it really worked beautifully. Teeth recede or rot, mom recedes in the narrator’s memories which become hazier as time goes on. There’s also something happening with intervention here, intervening in nature with the braces and the dentures. And there’s longing too, longing for what has been taken from the narrator–not just her mother, but the likeness and a longing for the woman she never got to know. I was knocked out by that final image of her mother on the bridge “strong and tall and just out of my reach”. I think this kind of longing is so universal and powerful–who were our parents before us? How much of them have remained? It feels like this narrator would like to, as a grown woman, sit on a bar stool next to her mother and befriend her. Beautiful work as always, Sammy.

  4. Amy Barnes

    Love this opening sentence and all the emotional ones that follow! Poignant and evocative from the start to end. That connection between mother/daughter that is good and bad but also the other connections (hollow leg, nail-biting, throwing snits) — the things the narrator questions but gradually feel like important parts of her life. The descriptions here make not only the story work but also drive the pacing: the pressing of tongue tip with a smile, the images of the rope bridge pose, the change in pride/acceptance of being like the mother, cartoon teeth, the dentures. The dream paragraph is such a perfect, personal expression of opening and closing how the narrator (and the universal we) feel about things, family, change.

  5. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Hi Samantha, The framing of this story, an exploration of the gaps, is so imaginative. First line, nailed it. The details carries the piece straight through to the final paragraph, Well done. My personal favorite paragraph after the opening paragraph is the final, dream paragraph.
    I love “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.”

    All of this is haunting. The long corridors, the house that isn’t yours. And the daughter following the mother, without words. Thank you for this. I wish I had suggestions for you, but I find it special just as it is.

  6. Neil Clark

    This one resonated so much with me.

    The dove-tailing changing relationships that both narrators have with their teeth and, by extension, their identity, is superbly done.

    The image of pressing the tongue into the back of the teeth reminds me of a friend who does the exact same thing. Then the bit with the dentures reminds me strongly of my gran.

    The dream sequence is the perfect way to round it off. Like others have said, it’s a good choice not to go with the oft written about ‘teeth falling out’. Also, that last line – “We don’t say a word to each other. Or maybe we do. I don’t remember by the time I wake up.” – so perfect and so relatable.

    The only aspect I would have like a bit of expansiveness was this – “She had another daughter, and a son,”. I was curious about the narrators brother and sister. Maybe even one line that could explore sibling dynamics. Might not need it though, just a thought.

    Great piece, Samantha. Really stayed with me.

  7. Cheryl Pappas

    Wow, Samantha, this floored me. First, I love how laser-focused this is on that one shared characteristic between mother and daughter. It’s not just the teeth, it’s the GAP. You’re using every bit of association with teeth in here to powerful effect: about bonding, losing teeth, and that absolutely relatable dream about teeth, but turned on its head.

    The tightrope image is exquisite and resonant.

    The only thing I might suggest is thinking more (or less!) about the siblings. I noticed that the “son” is set off by commas, and I thought that was interesting. I expected to hear something about him. But it might be best to leave them out of it entirely, which would help accentuate their bond.

    This is so gorgeous. Brava.

  8. K Chiucarello

    Hi Samantha — wow this is so achingly beautiful. First I just want to say that I’m wildly drawn to the dream sequence at the end. I found this passage absolutely haunting: “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’m curious what the dream sequence what look like at the beginning or if you split the dream sequence in two and sandwiched the memory part in between. That said, I don’t think it would make this piece any more powerful, just a suggestion if you felt like messing around with format.

    In general this piece is so ripe with familial grief and longing. You write it in a way that is rooted in specific experience but the reader feels the universality. It’s such a hard feat to accomplish and I think this piece does a superb job at it. Also in the first paragraph the generalness of ‘she had another daughter and a son’ hits perfectly. It maintains this aloofness that the piece holds throughout — it’s never too precious with the fondness of the gap, yet this piece is aching for it back. Again, beautifully written.

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