With apologies to Nora Ephron, who felt bad about her neck and wrote an entire book about it, here’s a piece I wrote three summers ago.
I feel bad about my teeth. Except here in England, that is. A few weeks ago, I saw an advertisement in a national English Sunday newspaper for a writers’ lecture series. I looked at the stained, uneven teeth of the eight men and two women and said to myself, those mouths look just like mine! Here in the sceptered isle, my sense of dental inadequacy melted away. It’s good to be home.
Whenever I go to see my dentist in Boston, Massachusetts, where I live most of the time, he makes a comment about my having “English teeth.” I suppose it can’t be helped, because I have English parents, and where else would I have gotten my teeth? But still, I wish he’d stop saying that. It’s not as if there’s anything I can do about it.
When my dentist says I have English teeth, he is speaking genetically, but not kindly. What he means is that my teeth are a mess. First off, they are small, and have lots of holes that are filled with an array of precious metals. My parents also have multitudes of fillings. Their dentist always went off to Mexico right after filling their teeth with gold, presumably to replace his stock.
And the color: my teeth could not be described as off-white, or even off-off-off-white. If my teeth were laundry, they’d look like when you’d put a non-color-fast t-shirt in with your whites, rendering them forever grey. If my teeth were a musical, they’d be so far off Broadway they’d be in Paducah. In short, my teeth have nothing in common with American teeth, those huge white choppers that come from having drunk massive amounts of milk and fluoridated water during childhood.
I did not drink massive amounts of milk when I was a child. As an English child of English parents growing up in America, I followed my parents’ lead. And they didn’t drink milk, even though my father grew up on a dairy farm in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Any inclination of mine to drink milk was quickly quashed when, while helping my grandfather and uncle milk their herd of cows one summer when I was young, my uncle scooped a great big chunk of manure off the top of the frothy milk in a churn before it–the milk–went off to the dairy. Having my favorite cow go to the slaughterhouse when I was six did the same thing to my consumption of meat. I have been a vegetarian ever since. A farming life is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not all communing with nature and romancing the animals.
This business with teeth goes back generations, as seen in family photos. My dad had small, dainty, teeth—I used to call them “Chicklets,” after the American chewing gum made out of little white squares—and lots and lots of fillings.
My mum has what she calls a “tooth graveyard”–teeth that stand up at irregular intervals in her mouth–so I suppose she means an old graveyard, say from 1749 or thereabouts, where the stones are falling about haphazardly, not a new one, where they line up like soldiers at attention. And they are permanently stained grey from tea. I myself have tried tooth whiteners, and they work a bit, though they are quickly done in by a little session of drinking tea so if it comes down to a choice between white teeth and tea, I go with tea every time.
Still, both of my parents are lucky to have their teeth. Three of my uncles have lost so many teeth that when they smile, my young children burst into tears.
My five-year-old daughter has spent the last month losing her two front teeth (and claiming from the English tooth fairy the unheard-of amount of L1 for each; the American T.F. gives only four shiny quarters).
When my daughter’s two front teeth were loose and stuck out, her grandmother kept bursting into song: “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, etc.,” and her two older siblings and I called her “Rabbit.” When one tooth dropped out and the other drunkenly listed at a forty-five-degree angle, we called her “Snaggle Tooth.” Now that both front teeth have dropped out and there’s an enormous cavern in her mouth, we call her by my uncle’s name though not, of course, in the presence of my uncle, he of the muck-scooping in the milk churn.
My teeth are not the only part of my appearance that cause me grief. When I complain to my hairdresser about hair that is fine and lacks “body,” he says, “At least you have hair.” He himself is bald, or as we might say, hirsutely challenged.
I will have to think similarly about my teeth. Small, off-white, prone to cavities though they may be, at least I have them. And my children, raised in America, have those great big blinding choppers that I would give my eye-teeth for, so at least upcoming generations of my family won’t have to feel bad about their teeth.