Pearly whites

November 3, 2009


Toothpaste. I couldn’t do without it. Yes, it freshens your breath. Yes, it contributes to mouth health. But the real reason I couldn’t do without it is because I had braces for four and a half years.

When I was about 10 years old, my then dentist (a former Army man with hands the size of frying pans) apparently recognized that I had a small jaw. He recommended that I have four of my permanent molars pulled to make room for future endeavors in my mouth. The deed was carried out by an oral surgeon  whose office was in a single-storey, red-brick building on the south side of the boulevard. When they put the gas mask over my nose and mouth to knock me out, I made it to 93 counting backwards from 100.

This was in the day when surgeons still used cloth thread to tie wounds closed. I can’t tell you how much mileage I got grossing people out with four spots of thick, black thread in my mouth. It was even better if I had just eaten lunch.

When I was 13, I became Metal Mouth.

The orthodontist confidently said, “Oh, it’ll take one year, maybe a year and a half.” Although he was a tooth professional, he was apparently unable to recognize that mine were rooted in cement. We began the ordeal. And when I say “we,” I include my parents, usually my mom. See, it wasn’t just going to the orthodontist. It was driving the 20 miles to the next largest city where that single-storey, red-brick building on the south side of the boulevard was located. This was the same city where my dad worked, so frequently we’d make a day of it, all of us driving over in the morning—my mom and I doing my time at the orthodontist’s, then spending the long rest of the day at my dad’s store. He sold pianos and organs, and as I was years into piano lessons, if nothing else, I could practice. Sometimes I goofed off and shakily rode a skateboard around the smooth-floored basement of the store.

Then, when I was 15, we moved to a different state. The metal bands still securely encircled my teeth with no sign of coming off. We had to find a new orthodontist. Now, the next largest town was 35 miles away. My mom and I engaged in orthodontic carpooling with an unfortunate classmate who was enduring the same trial as I. This went on for a couple more years. Every six weeks, my gums would ache for a week as I adjusted to the pull of the new configuration of tiny rubberbands. I knew I’d have a perfect smile one day.

Finally, when I was 17 and during my senior year in high school, it ended. The braces came off, and so did the glasses. I did have a perfect smile, I had become the swan.

But one thing that didn’t go away was my by then well-developed compulsion to brush my teeth for little or no reason. Thirty years later, it is still an overpowering urge.

It is as almost a postscript to all of this that I have realized what was maybe the more important benefit of having had those four molars removed at age 10—I am the proud owner of all my wisdom teeth. They never needed to be pulled because there was room for them to coexist peacefully with my remaining teeth. And in fact, I have a supernumerary fifth wisdom tooth in my upper right jaw which I am kind of proud of. I figure that’s why I’m so smart.


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