“To The Teeth” (Prompt #1)

by | Oct 17, 2020 | Dean Cleaning One | 18 comments

Milk teeth tucked away in a velvet-lined earring box in the top dresser drawer, or has she buried our incisors and molars in the dirt with the portulaca and morning glory? 

Instead of diamonds and toads falling from our mouths like the French fairy tales she read to us at bedtime, our 60-something mother saves—still?—calcified remnants of what were once breast milk, formula, bananas, green beans, apple butter, biscuits and gravy, sweet corn on the cob, blackberry cobbler, cube steak dredged in flour and pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet, the fluoride-treated tap water of rural Missouri. 

Twenty primary teeth each for two sisters three years apart: root, hidden in gleaming pink gum, and crown, enamel erupted from bone but not actual bone. Internet descriptions like koans: “Both teeth and seashells are more complex than they might first appear.” 

When I lost my first tooth, I set out a small rose-patterned porcelain and brass doll chair and jelly beans. I wrote a note to the tooth fairy. I wanted proof of her existence more than money. In the morning, I awake to find a colorful self-portrait on yellow construction paper with tiny bites taken from each jelly bean.

My senior year picture shows me wearing an off-the-shoulder formal black wrap all the girls wore over tank tops with a closed-lip smile. Behind the smile, I wear braces because my divorced parents fought until junior year about who was going to pay for braces.

Flashbacks from undergraduate anthropology classes in the mid-90s, whereby we learn our mouths are now too small, teeth too plentiful, overcrowding eventual. Our masseter muscles no longer as massive because we don’t rip flesh and crack nuts like we once did. We have, the professor lamented, gone soft. 

Meanwhile, some true-crime drama airing late at night tells the story of an unidentified child whose teeth reveal where she was raised within a 100-mile radius, how old she was when she died, who misses her desperately and wants her home. A 10th-century German nun sports lapis lazuli in the tartar of her teeth, proving centuries later that women wrote and painted illuminated manuscripts, too We know all this because she bit the quill of her pen. 

What we sometimes say: Cut your teeth. A kick in the teeth. Gnashing of teeth. To grit one’s teeth. To sink our teeth into. To bare our teeth. To take the teeth out of us. Armed to the teeth.

My granddad, a Depression-era hillbilly with no dental care, chased me and my kid sister around the house with his dentures. We squealed in morbid delight as he turned the corner with his replacement teeth. Dentures he had since his early 20s after serving in the Navy during the Normandy invasion. 

When seven-year-old me told my suburban dentist I couldn’t wait to have dentures, he paused before asking me why I thought that. 

“Because,” I said, “that’s what happens when you grow up. You lose all your teeth.” 

 

18 Comments

  1. David O'Connor

    So good. I love the energy and improvisation feeling, like real jazz. Great details that swirl around a narrative. A toothy one (have you read, “The Story of My Teeth” by Valeria Lusielli?). I wanted proof of her existence more than money.– an excellent line in the right place which deepens the tone, also so much family history tucked in here. Good work! Love the hill-billy with the dentures!

    • Kella

      Thanks, David, I have not read Valeria Lusielli, but now I’m on the hunt for “The Story of My Teeth.” Thank you so much for your feedback! Much appreciated. ~Kella

    • Paul Beckman

      Kella-This is a great opening to your story: “Milk teeth tucked away in a velvet-lined earring box in the top dresser drawer, or has she buried our incisors and molars in the dirt with the portulaca and morning glory? ”
      Who knew teeth could be so fascinating? Obviously you. Loved this par also: “Twenty primary teeth each for two sisters three years apart: root, hidden in gleaming pink gum, and crown, enamel erupted from bone but not actual bone. Internet descriptions like koans: “Both teeth and seashells are more complex than they might first appear.”
      These par openings: “My senior year . . .” “Flashbacks . . .” and “Meanwhile, some true crime-drama . . .”
      All this and the granddad too. Wonderful tale.

  2. Tommy Dean

    Love the voice here right from the beginning! This searching, wondering, but incredulous! and the truth of this topic is spot on! I have my children’s teeth in my top dresser drawer right now!

    “Instead of diamonds and toads falling from our mouths like the French fairy tales she read to us at bedtime, our 60-something mother saves—still?—calcified remnants of what were once breast milk, formula, bananas, green beans, apple butter, biscuits and gravy, sweet corn on the cob, blackberry cobbler, cube steak dredged in flour and pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet, the fluoride-treated tap water of rural Missouri.” This is exquisite! I love the opposites of the fairy tale and reality and then the litany of what made or marred these teeth is perfect! The movement here, especially the passage of time through food is amazing!

    Love how the narrator gets at the weirdness of this in the next paragraph, the way we focus on the natural creation of teeth, which is weird, but also weird that the mom would keep so many of them! How the koan wants us to believe that there’s a lesson here, but what is it?

    “I wanted proof of her existence more than money.” Yes!!! This resonates so much! My son wanted to catch her! and those little bites on those jelly beans! ah, perfect! what parents will do to help their kids believe in something!

    “Our masseter muscles no longer as massive because we don’t rip flesh and crack nuts like we once did. We have, the professor lamented, gone soft.” yes! This is such a great truth, but also a metaphor and the thematic heart of your piece! We have gone soft, the keeping of the teeth is sentimental, but is this softness really a bad thing? maybe? maybe not?

    The segments here are just really great! They widen and deepen our attention to teeth, how they create who we are, how they tell the world about us, how the narrator shifts from the tooth fair to the dentures, how we think we know what it means to grow up, but we’re so lovingly wrong! I love this!

    • Kella

      Tommy, thank you!!! You’re making my day. I love the questions you pose and your comments about where the heart and central metaphor of this piece rest. Thank you for your generous reading and feedback. I am so excited to study with you and the gang. ~Kella

  3. Constance Malloy

    I jumped on this ride with the first line and was surprised and delighted by everything along the way. The last line is pitch perfect!

    We have all of my daughter’s teeth, and on a recent trip to my childhood home my mother gave me a tiny glass jar with all my teeth tumbling around inside of it. It delighted my daughter to hear them clinking against the jar’s sides.

    Teeth are simply a great metaphor for growing up, and the fear of letting go of our childhood and innocence, and your bring that metaphor to life in such and enjoyable ( and weirdly educational) way through this piece. Nice angle to come at the idea of our softening humanity. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kella

      Constance, firstly I love your first name (so beautiful!), and secondly, thank you for going on this weird ride about teeth with me. I snort-laughed at the parenthetical aside of “(and weirdly educational)” (I would love to have that printed on a t-shirt and wear it proudly). Thanks for reading and for sharing your feedback. I very much appreciate the time you took to let me know what is working. Mil merci! ~Kella

  4. Roberta Beary

    This is a wonderful tale and had me hooked all the way. What mom doesn’t save her kids’ baby teeth?

    I love: “A 10th-century German nun sports lapis lazuli in the tartar of her teeth, proving centuries later that women wrote and painted illuminated manuscripts, too We know all this because she bit the quill of her pen.”

    Your writing me realise no women illustrators appear in either ‘Name of the Rose’ or the myriad Brother Cadfael mysteries.

    The denture-wisdom of the 7 year old and the anxiety of the teen in braces are a great contrast. I feel the narrator’s pain in the memory of that teenage photo op: “My senior year picture shows me wearing an off-the-shoulder formal black wrap all the girls wore over tank tops with a closed-lip smile. Behind the smile, I wear braces because my divorced parents fought until junior year about who was going to pay for braces.”

    Wonderful writing!

    • Kella

      Thanks so much for reading, Roberta!! I have a 3-year-old daughter, who still has all of her primary teeth, and I’m very much curious what the heck I’m going to do with her teeth. These days there are special containers you can buy online to preserve the teeth for future stem-cell research. So, as someone new to this practice, I’m genuinely curious what happens to all of our baby teeth, especially after our parents die. I’m excited to pop over to see what you’ve written as well! Happy writing, ~Kella

  5. Francine Witte

    I love how many memories are evoked from the teeth and how there is such a magical voice to this.

    • Kella

      Thanks for reading, Francine! I very much appreciate you doing so. ~Kella

  6. Clementine Burnley

    i loved this so much, for all the places it took me, in time, in the family relationships (love the jelly beans and grandpas dentures), it’s like a family tree made of enamel, some places it took me were in my memories, and some places were completely unexpected and newly weirdly true. Since the pandemic began I have ground my teeth night and day, and don’t want to go to the dentist for a tooth guard.

    I enjoyed the deep investigations and the language was fresh:
    Internet descriptions like koans:

    I loved the end.

    • Kella

      Clementine, I so appreciate your feedback and I feel you on grinding your teeth. I have done that in the past and I, too, delayed in going to the dentist to get a teeth guard. Sending you love and wellness amid this incredibly stressful time. It’s a wonder any of us are writing anything, which makes me so grateful for little oases like this online workshop. Also, your writing, woo! Clementine, I cannot wait to keep reading your work IRL too. ~Kella

  7. Christina Rosso-Schneider

    I love that you chose teeth to be your object! Brilliant!

    My favorite section: “Meanwhile, some true-crime drama airing late at night tells the story of an unidentified child whose teeth reveal where she was raised within a 100-mile radius, how old she was when she died, who misses her desperately and wants her home. A 10th-century German nun sports lapis lazuli in the tartar of her teeth, proving centuries later that women wrote and painted illuminated manuscripts, too We know all this because she bit the quill of her pen.

    What we sometimes say: Cut your teeth. A kick in the teeth. Gnashing of teeth. To grit one’s teeth. To sink our teeth into. To bare our teeth. To take the teeth out of us. Armed to the teeth.”

    I’ve been watching SVU lately and this immediately spoke to me. I also love how you weave together facts, folklore, and idioms seamlessly.

    • Kella

      Christina, hello and thank you! I feel you on the SVU connections too (I’m a Cold Case Files girl these days, which makes me laugh). I often feel that being a writer parallels putting the clues together to find the narrative. Thank you so much for reading! I look forward to giving you some feedback today (Sunday, Oct. 18th) as well. Thank you, thank you! ~Kella

  8. Gay Degani

    This is outstanding. Teeth as the main conveyance works on so many levels. The list of idioms about teeth is brilliant. I love the being chased by false teeth, I can still see my grandmother’s teeth sitting in a glass by her bedside. I thought it was so gross despite the fact I adored her. And that teeth testify to our originals. Really brilliant.

    • Kella

      Gay, you are too kind. I’m uncertain if the end is the end, you know? And I absolutely adore/ed my granddad as you adore/ed your grandmother, false teeth notwithstanding (and also dental care is such a class-based thing, yeah?). He was the best man in my life, and the funny things he did to make childhood magical and silly for me and my siblings and cousins is a legacy I cherish. Thank you for reading and sharing your impressions. I am looking forward to reading your work today (Sun., Oct. 18th) and providing some feedback to you! ~Kella

  9. Meg Tuite

    Hi Kella,
    This is a beauty! The full circle moving from the tooth fairy, to braces, and then to Granddad chasing the sisters around the house with his dentures. It’s visceral and keeps us with the teeth. My only suggestion would be to consider dropping the last paragraph. Let the dentist have the last word and leave that white space for the reader to imagine what her answer would be. So great. LOVE!

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