Good Teeth

Under tight white light and tipped back in the dental chair, a stranger’s masked face hovers as she scrapes and pokes. You have good teeth, she says. Thanks for being such a good brusher and flosser.

I long to toss off these credits, if only I could move my mouth. I rarely brush before bed, I want to confess, I’m forgetful in the night, lazy when I’m tired, a procrastinator of the worst degree. I barely tolerate the consistency of toothpaste and I abhor the taste of mint. I floss vigorously the week before dental appointments.

But my mouth is filled with instruments and soon enough the masked woman sprays her cold water rinse and suctions to the drain until I feel cleansed and pure like in baptism. The woman sits me up and removes her mask, smiles. I smile back in silence, taking credit I know I did not earn.

I’ve been thinking about inheritance. My great-grandmother Anna was born in a small German river town on September 1, 1891, one of the youngest of a dozen children. She migrated to this country in 1907. She was 16 years old. The story goes that her sister, two years older, wanted to go to America and Anna offered to go along for the adventure. Anna and her sister earned the money to pay for their ocean voyage by taking in laundry and sewing, and by deep-cleaning local shops in the evenings while they were closed. But shortly before the scheduled trip, the older sister fell ill. She could not travel. Ticket in hand, my 16 year old great grandmother left her large family and boarded the ship alone. We called her Big Mom.

The dentist arrives, and again my chair tilts back. The brightest of lights. Let’s take a look, she says, and with a sharp-pointed instrument she goes about exploring, poking each tooth, my gums. From the adjacent examining room, we hear squeals, then laughter. The man in the chair has swallowed his crown. My dentist laughs with them and, like her assistant before her, offers me praise. You have good teeth, she says, and some really good dental work. I see a few crowns and root canals, and your veneers are beautiful, very well done. Have you had the same dentist all your life?

How to tell her I have moved 30 times; that my mother had a hell of a time getting me to brush at all because I gagged at the taste of mint; that I was bulimic for a decade without suspect; that I saw my first dentist about age 20 when I went to work for a firm that offered dental insurance. I must, I think, have inherited these good strong resilient teeth from my mother, from her mother, from our Big Mom who never spoke ill, never uttered a curse word, loved and welcomed all, and lived healthily and without much medical care (because who in our family could ever afford a doctor, a dentist?) into her 90s.

I cling to the story of Big Mom’s life, her brave voyage, and so with every blistering comment I read and hear about immigrants — go back where you came from, build a wall at the border, towel-head rag-head wet-back, speak English, you are not welcome, get out of my country, children born here should not receive citizenship — I wonder when and where the ancestors of these speakers were born.

I recoil as if by snake bite.

My family has been here a short one hundred years, and I am grateful. Grateful for Big Mom. The brave, healthy, hardworking, determined 16 year old German girl I was born from. The girl who did not speak a word of English when she arrived under the torch of these United States and so could not yet read the welcome: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Leaving the dentist’s office I feel puffed-up — how American of me — relieved to have once again passed through the gate with kind words and unearned praise and my good dental health despite my inherent laziness, continued distaste of mint, and my staunch lack of commitment to waxed strings of floss.  I take credit where no credit is due.

A decade back there was a dentist in Minnesota who insisted I was raised in one place, possibly on a farm with a well of naturally fluoridated water. I’d thought then, as I often do, of Big Mom. Raised on a small farm in Germany, maybe young Anna was the one with the fluoride and the hard work and I am the one who, generations later, simply reaps the benefits.

I think now of migration, of inheritance, of  my good fortune.  Of Big Mom and German farm towns and my non-American ancestors.  Of my American becoming.  Of the boon of credits I have done nothing to earn but take as my birthright. Of my good teeth.

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