Thursday, April 23, 2009


We went to the dentist last week.

"We" means 2/3 of my children.  The night before, the Big One saw the dental appointment and asked 'why now?', meaning - why now, when we are cutting back expenses, have a pile of bills, and have started the hell of paying off this year's taxes.

The short answer is that 'next month' never seems to come - that is, we can put it off, but to what end?

Later, a few things occurred to me - that is, that dental visits are simply what you do.  And that as a child, we never missed our annual dentist appointment.  And that whatever the cause, we all had perfect teeth and giant smiles.  Teeth, and our family smiles, were a source of misplaced pride (since luck, genetics, and fluoridated water each played a larger part in our big, straight, cavity-free teeth than did the daily brushing, or occasional swipe-throughs with floss.)  

My mother raised us alone, with no financial or emotional assistance from my father, who abandoned her and his four children when I was 18 months old.  She struggled as a counselor, and then a teacher, to make all ends line up - and to give us the extras so we wouldn't notice.  

Visits to the dentist happened in the summer, when we would stay with my grandparents on their farm in a small town in rural Connecticut ("farm" is a retired tobacco farm, and "Connecticut" is rural riverbank broadleaf tobacco territory.  Lest you be confused and immediately associate "Connecticut farm" with Martha Stewart's plush Westport horse ranch...This was decidedly Not That.)

On the farm, I got to be queen.  My naturally bossy tendencies were given full reign, as my grandfather imagined poor, fatherless Cathy the victim of every nefarious plot.  I followed him with a matching salt shaker in my pocket so we could eat hot tomatoes off the vine.  I talked non-stop, and he listened - mostly silent.  We picked blueberries for my grandmother's flourishing summer blueberry business, and he would come to my defense when I got in trouble for handing over a bucket of mostly red berries, speckled with hard little green stems, and rubbed almost translucent from over-handling.

Famously, my siblings (4, 6, and 7 years older) would be admonished if I tripped.  If I cried when left out of games with even older cousins.  Or, when younger, wet my pants.  

Grampa was my champion.  I could do no wrong.

I have no idea if the trips to the dentist were paid for by my grandfather or my mother - but it doesn't matter.  They would have happened either way, because my mother firmly believed in good teeth and in doing what you Should, and because my mother was a notorious refuser-of-aid (even if had come in the form of dental visits, provided for by her father.)

I wasn't really thinking of all of this.  Not yet.

I visited my son - proud and four - in the chair.  He had a mouth full of flouride treatment, and I involuntarily shuddered.  I took a picture.  I said to the hygienist, "I remember those, back before they had those little suction straws.  They were awful.  You weren't allowed to swallow and it was so hard not to."

Annabeth wanted details.  So I told her.  "When I was little?  You had that awful stuff and no sucky straw, but you couldn't swallow - you had to keep spitting in a little bowl.  But once, I did swallow. And when I got back to my grandparent's house, I threw up in the bushes."

"Really?  Did you go to the hospital?"

"No,no.  Nothing like that.  But  I can remember my grandfather yelling about 'that goddamned dentist had no idea what the hell he was doing!' and my grandmother yelling back that we were told not to swallow, that she heard the dentist say it..."  

"Was the dentist wrong?"

"No, hon.  He wasn't.  But my grandfather was always quick to stand up for me.  He imagined everyone was doing wrong around me, and that I was never at fault."

"Wow.  Was that nice?"

Conspiratorily, I answered, "It was fantastic."

And it was.  I think my grandfather honestly believed it was his duty to single-handedly make up for the fact that my father was an unmitigated ass.  That he had abandoned all of us, and never looked back, was something so far out of my grandfather's loyal and hardworking imagination that he was compelled to make up for it.  It was an abomination, and needed to be revealed as such - and not imagined to be any sort of norm.

My grandfather was my knight.  There to prove to me that men were not, inherently, bad.  That hard work and loyalty should always prevail. That I was wonderful just being.

It was folly to think he could do all that.  On his own.  In just eight weeks a summer.

But he did.  

And I would have had no reason to think of him last week.  No reason to talk about him to my kids, no reason to remember what it was like to have a champion, to be spoiled in grand and real ways.  What it was like to be beautiful and Right and smart.  To be listened to, by an adult, as a child. To feel hot dirt between your toes, and to eat hot tomatoes out of a field.  To pull a salt shaker out of your pocket.  

Had it not been for an ill-timed trip to the dentist?  I might not have had any reason at all to think of Grampa.  

And that's a pretty good job for a dentist.


  1. I love this story and will remind you of grandpa every time you roll your eyes at me when I tell a particular child of yours how wonderful he is -- much love

  2. I really like a thoughtful story which have effect on me. Love u grandpa for a good job. U r real champion. Thanks for sharing.