I blame my father for my aversion to flossing as a child. And it all has to do with my first loose tooth.
Having a loose tooth hadn’t actually crossed my mind since the last time a tooth fell from my head some two or so decades ago. The thought occurred to me again recently as I was watching—and hearing—my son eat with his newly erupted chompers.
I don’t remember exactly when I lost my first tooth, but I remember I was late. Many of the other children at school brandished their gaps with gusto. There was a general understanding in elementary school that more baby teeth meant you were still more of a baby. I wanted very much to have a hole or two in my smile, but not because I felt more like a baby or like I was being developmentally left behind. Rather, because I wanted to be able to drink from a straw through the gap in my teeth. The other kids were doing it; I was convinced the milk would taste better that way because drinking from a straw through a gap in your teeth sounded a lot more fun than conventional interdental straw drinking.
During that time I would constantly push against my teeth with my tongue. And I would convince myself that one was coming loose. If you reach into your mouth and start working a tooth between your thumb and index finger, with enough imagination it will start to feel loose. I did not realize that by using the meaty part of my finger and thumb I was being fooled by false positives. Only later did I learn the trick of using your thumb- and fingernail to accurately assess tooth looseness. I would not be surprised if I actually provoked my first tooth to become loose. Though it really doesn’t matter if it was nature or the fact that I was pushing on my teeth every day. What mattered was the flush of excitement that fluttered through me when I realized the tooth was actually loose. What mattered was that I was at the doorstep of this tangible milestone of getting bigger. Growing older. Growing up.
Other developmental milestones, like physically growing taller or not having to pull your pants all the way down to pee standing up, were either too slow to notice or hardly of any consequence. Having a loose tooth and then eventually losing it is immediate. It is a fun and novel process and it is a clear landmark in the developmental process. Plus, you get a little souvenir that you get to trade in for money. A trophy for a few hours that magically turns into a dollar. The next big tangible developmental milestone doesn’t come until you start growing pubic hair–and nobody will give you money for that.
My vision narrowed in the days when my first tooth was loose. My eyes were open but my full concentration was firmly on wiggling and working the tooth back and forth incessantly with my tongue, with my finger, with my pencil. I was so distracted from life I could hardly be asked to do anything else. How can a child distract himself from the very thing that is distracting him from everything else?
–Teacher: “Ok, everyone. We’re going to do some arithmetic problems.”
–Me: “Right. I can do this. 8 + 6 is…OH! I heard something, I think I definitely pushed it farther this time. Let’s see, a few more wiggles to be sure…yup. Yup. It’s going farther in. Outward is the same. But inward it goes farther. Better keep working it.”
–Teacher: “Ok, everyone pass their sheets to the person on their right for correcting.”
–Me: “Ahhhh, shit.”
I showed everybody I knew. They probably couldn’t see anything because I was moving the tooth with my tongue, which meant all they saw was me moving my tongue against my teeth. But everyone kept saying things like, “oh, that’ll come out any day now” and “yup, that’s just hanging on by a thread.” The latter statement I took to heart; the picture I had of my tooth was that of a very loose button that was literally attached by a few stubborn threads being stretched and worked with every wiggle.
While wiggling the tooth was fun, it was the only thing I did for those two weeks while it was loose. Eating was the worst. I wanted to eat as I always had (some shoveling slurping inhaling technique I’m sure I was born with), but the loose tooth made me bite gingerly and cautiously, lest I break the tooth off and swallow it and the bounty it was sure to fetch.
What I didn’t realize was that the loose tooth was also a pain for my dad. I suppose he was tired of seeing me with a thousand-yard stare and my mouth ajar with my tongue flicking in and out as I worked the tooth. I suppose he was also tired of my sluggish response time to questions or requests or commands due to my maxed-out brain bandwidth and my incessant mentioning and complaining about that damn tooth. It got to a point when one evening he got up out of his purple leather armchair and said, “Come on, Dusty, let’s get that sucker.”
I wanted the tooth out of my mouth. But I didn’t want my tooth outed from my mouth by my dad. There was, however, very little arguing with my dad.
I followed my dad down the hall to my parents’ bathroom. The hallway in the old house traced out an L and led you past two bedrooms, one bathroom and finally to the master bedroom with its own en suite bathroom. The trek was long enough for a child to truly contemplate what “let’s get that sucker” could actually mean.
Images started to flash and bounce inside my rather large head. Was there going to be a doorknob involved? Are the stories of home dentistry, complete with needle-nose pliers, true? The picture of what might be, what probably will be started to coalesce as we sank deeper and deeper from the safety of the living room and moved toward the master bath at the very end of the hall. The realization of my ensuing fate made my legs heavy with fear, but I was pulled along in the wake of my father’s stride.
Flicking the loose tooth to and fro suddenly became a gamble—if I flicked enough and got it out in the last few moments before my dad “got that sucker” I could save myself from the toolbox of pliers, crowbars, fulcrums and pulleys. But if the tooth wasn’t yet ready for extraction, flicking it during this time might make it ready thereby delivering me to whatever crazy methods my dad learned while watching PBS all those years.
My dad hoisted me up onto the bathroom counter and I sat there dangling my feet in front of the drawer my mom kept her womanly bathroom things. A little basket of anonymous cosmetics, an old beat-up red leather nail care set with a broken zipper, a few combs. I don’t know what was in my dad’s drawer on the other side of the sink; he was always out of the house by the time I got up and I really never dared to open it. But I spent many hours in front of my mom’s open drawer pouting as she combed my hair trying to tame the short side of a side part that would require more than water to submit to gravity. Somehow, getting your hair combed on a cold morning with icy water trickling down your neck and shirt seemed pretty good in light of my current situation awaiting home exodontia.
Dad got out his Dr. Dean Edell half readers and the floss. Before he got a length of floss, though, he stuck his finger in and wiggled the tooth about. I remember how big his finger felt compared to my own when I did it. It was dry and finger skin was tough. I tried to avoid touching his finger with my tongue because it was weird enough having his finger in my mouth, I didn’t want to make it weirder by licking his finger. He pushed harder on the tooth than I had dared to. I winced on the inside but it must have shown on the outside because he took his finger out of my mouth then. Dad must have been making sure the tooth was ripe enough for harvest. He peered once more into my mouth and wound the floss around his two index fingers.
My mouth began to sweat. And my hairless armpits started to moisten. I slouched over already defeated because I knew that there was absolutely no quarter in sight.
Because he was wearing half readers, he had to look down his nose to see what he was doing; as I looked up at him, I saw his two very big almond-shaped nostrils underneath a slightly crooked nose.
And there was a lot of nose hair.
I started to wonder how he could breathe through that baleen in his nose. And when he blew his nose, if anything could really come out. I also wondered if it tickled his finger when he picked his nose, or if he could even pick his nose. It seemed his fingers wouldn’t fit, even if there were no hair in there. These were questions I was afraid to ask him.
My dad really had no idea what he was doing in there with the floss. He popped the floss in on one side of the loose tooth and ran the floss back and forth at the base. He did both sides and periodically checked for blood. I hated it.
He also tried to loop the floss the around the tooth. But there was simply not enough room in my mouth for both of his hands and a crochet needle for him to successfully loop the floss around the tooth. But he tried. And tried. I hated this too because I had to open my mouth wider and feel his rough dad hands bang around my already beat-up mouth.
Lucky for me his failure to loop the tooth meant he couldn’t attempt the tie-your-tooth-to-a-door-and-slam-it-shut technique.
What felt like longer than one episode of “60 Minutes” he wound the floss and sawed and checked for blood and wiggled. And waggled and peered and got new floss and inspected and pushed and pulled. There was blood. There was cotton mouth. And eventually there was a tooth.
Accompanying the taste of thick metal and the reluctance to swallow was the new, foreign feeling of open gum with that weird dangly bit to flick around. Between a tickling discomfort and pain, my tummy fluttered when I ran my tongue over the new absence of tooth. It didn’t feel good but I couldn’t stop myself; I had my new fixation until I felt the bud of tooth plan its coming-out party.
My dad presented me the tooth in his open palm. After the two or so weeks leading up to this day and then having to endure the extraction, all I got was this puny, oddly shaped, insignificant baby tooth. I furrowed my brow in utter disappointment. It was way smaller in my hand than what it felt like inside my mouth. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it surely was more than what I ended up getting.
I rolled the piddly tooth between my fingers. It was bloody and sharp. The underside was concave and to my dismay, there were no threads. Just a few small bits of gum or nerve or mouth that were still on there.
My dad took the tooth and brazenly rinsed it under the tap without plugging the drain. Then he gave it to me for good and told me to run and show my mom.
I was a lot less hopeful after seeing the tooth about actually getting anything for it: I was afraid the tooth fairy was going to see it and just laugh and leave calcium tablets. But, as advertised, just like the coming of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy delivered a crisp one-dollar bill under my pillow. The magic was real for a few years back then; I learned soon after that the Tooth Fairy ponies up a silver dollar for the first top front tooth, but still only a dollar for molars. I now wonder about a few things as I look ahead to Chester’s teeth falling out: How will I ‘help’? Does the Tooth Fairy know where Switzerland is? If so, what’s the going rate for a tooth these days, and is it adjusted to reflect the swollen CPI of Zurich? Should I keep my children’s baby teeth or is that gross?
Luckily I still have time to answer these questions. Now I get to simply enjoy watching and listening to my son eat with a zeal matched only by that of his old man’s. I just hope he doesn’t start to use his teeth on the children at day care—or us—and that I don’t psyche him out of using floss. Or crochet needles.
Happy Father’s day, everybody!