My Father’s Teeth

Salamander, #44

My father saved his teeth by lying through them. Somewhere on the border between Russia and Poland, pines and rifles, in the nineteen-teens, he went off to the woods with two other boys to visit the village horses hidden there from soldiers, who would commandeer anything from anybody, but especially from Jews. The boys stopped to rest along the road and were spotted by youths in uniforms of the Polish army. Filthy Bolsheviks! one young man shouted at the boys, you’ve been spying on us.

No, said the first boy, and—Liar!—got a few teeth knocked out with a rifle butt. No, said the second, and—Liar!—likewise lost some mouth. Yes, said my father, thereby winning the hand of the princess, finding the key to the jeweled casket, keeping his brick self safe from huffing and puffing, and whatever other favorable outcomes occur on the third try. His teeth remained in his mouth, vertical, for seven more decades, and are probably with him to this day, horizontal, in a pine casket that by now has lost its walls and never possessed a lock.

The teeth when I knew them were yellow and tough, jostling in line like philosophers craning for a glimpse over the edge of mortality. Fibrous food stuck among them after the least bite, and my father applied toothpicks to the crannies. The dinner table in our house always included, at his end, the napkin holder, the brightly painted Polly Parrot with a beak that pried off bottle caps, and a miniature glass mug, souvenir of Kitchener, Canada, packed with standing toothpicks. He preferred the cylindrical kind, symmetrically beveled. He left a trail of them, split, greasy, blunted, on the kitchen linoleum and in the crevices of the armchair where he would sometimes fall asleep after dinner.

Once, when he was in his eighties, he despaired of clearing the crannies, and my mother had a hard time contemplating the mission. I volunteered to floss, certain that thread was better than his usual splintering lumber. He sat in front of me on a straight-backed chair, suddenly small and well-behaved, and, leaning over him, I tried to find the slightest chink that would let thread through. My fingers were half in his mouth, amid clots of chewed fiber and sinew. Was this a labor of love in the gullet of time? I gagged. Did I even know who this person was, who used to hold me in deep water at the beach and threaten to let go?

We walked down the main street one day—or have I conflated many days into one transparent morning in front of the A&P?—discussing the pointlessness of human existence. But people make good fertilizer, I offered, echoing an earlier opinion of his. No, he said, apparently having reconsidered. I notice when I pass cemeteries that the grass isn’t any greener there. As we turned back toward home, I was holding his left arm just above the elbow, and the steady, muffled flutter of his heart registered against the back of my hand. We were passing a chain-link fence I had climbed as a child to pick some dusky blue grapes out of the cobwebs behind a store—Mr. Willensky the dry-goods merchant’s, to be exact. I had torn my pants, then lied about the incident to my mother. I wondered if I would remember as vividly this systole and diastole against my dusky blue veins, the lubdub that seemed to be the rhythm of the world when it was only the stuttering motor of a human intruder.

I also felt a toothpick in his shirt pocket.

In my job at an art museum, years later, I learned that some drawings have not teeth but tooth, a wash of finely ground stone or bone or shell applied to paper to form a faintly nubbled surface that elicits more from soft pencil than a smooth sheet would. The application of tooth was common in the Renaissance; I like to think it is associated with the emergence of Humanism.

When I chewed on a fingernail, back in the days of filching grapes, my father would yell at me to stop, then mockingly offer his own finger instead, with its vestige of axle grease (he was a quarter partner in a gas station and well acquainted with the limits of Borax soap). Sometimes I would take him up on the deal, and bite down hard around a joint. My mother, who is clamoring from her perch in Heaven to be remembered in this account and wishes not to have to wait for an elegy of her own, used to playfully bite my arm on occasion. It was an expression of affection, and it left an accurate imprint of uppers and lowers to remember her by. Somewhere between my elbow and my wrist you could see the space between her two front teeth and the way her canines splayed slightly. I had what psychologists call a boundary problem: where did her mouth end and my arm begin? I think of Renaissance artists with their study sheets. Paper was at a premium, and often unrelated subjects shared the same space.

We trace a tortuous border between lub and love.

I lived abroad in my twenties, and once my parents came to witness my new life. My mother learned, in answer to a question, that I was not quite as virginal as she’d assumed. Now I wonder: I lied to her about grapes; why not about sex? Maybe I wanted her to know me and love me anyway. Maybe I wanted to torment her. Maybe I wanted to be as liberated as my friends, whose parents grew up under American shingle, not Eastern European thatch. Sitting at the kitchen table in my student apartment, my mother cried. Just don’t tell your father, she said. And later told him herself.

You’re living a filthy life, he said to me. You’ve ruined our vacation and our health.

Toothmarks are of many types, and take a while to fade.

In my father’s last years, we used to walk around the block during my visits. A short way down the street was the “leaning tree”—a wide-gauge trunk that would absorb his weight when he was tired—and halfway around the block was a house with a picnic table on the lawn that the owners had offered as a way station. We had talks there. What was the scariest thing about dying, I wanted to know. If they put you in the box before you’re dead. I adlibbed about measurable brain waves and reassured him that when he died he would be very dead. He also said, on that picnic bench, that he wished he could be frozen for fifty years and come back and see what the world was like. He would probably have been fascinated by the laptop with which I started violating his memory only twelve years out—and now I have a faster one as I rewrite, using him as compost, fertilizing phrases with his nitrogen.

Ah mayseh, he would have said in Yiddish: a yarn. Believe that and she’ll tell you another one.

Another one is this: even as we sat on the wooden benches discussing cryogenics, he was easing a splinter off the edge of the table to dislodge a last bit of lunch from between his teeth.

When I was in the third grade I had a brand-new slim spelling book, for which I made my usual cover, out of a brown paper A&P bag. Though I liked the smell and feel of the book, the spelling lists and exercises were contemptibly simple, as innocuous as the large sans-serif type. So I tried them out on my father, who had come to the US at age eighteen and never had much formal education.

One morning I sat on his side of the bed when he was still in it, a rare lazy Sunday, and put him through the drill. In the process I tried to correct his pronunciation. He had trouble baring his teeth around the word girl. He humored me, exaggerated his accent, played for mistakes. Goil. Girl. Goiruuul. Girl. Despite my pretensions to ownership of the language we were speaking, he seemed to enjoy the game. I realize now that role reversal appealed to him. He was an infant when his father died; the glimpse of his mother running alongside his train as it left the village for Warsaw in 1923 was his last sight of her. He reminded me that I was her namesake. I should be making him pancakes, he said. You’re supposed to take care of me.

The last few days I saw my father alive I took some satisfaction in spooning Ensure into him. Vitamin pudding from a can. Another day, another sunset that signaled its indifference through the windows of his room at the nursing home.

I brought him slices of Bosc pear, his favorite fruit, which he dutifully chewed. Then he opened his mouth, and it was all still there, Bosc bits in the crannies and under the tongue.

The next day, when I proffered a spoonful of pudding, he clenched his teeth. He was still present in his eyes, and they were defiant. The spoon clacked again against enamel. He was finished with living.

My mother and I were sitting at the dinette table in the house where I grew up and she still lived. No tooth marks, just two people face to face, two years after my father’s death. I was sure I heard her bones crunch when I said maybe it was time to stop mourning, to seek people out again, enjoy the everyday. I’m not mourning for him anymore, she said. I’m mourning for my own life.

Comfort comes, when it does, from conventions in mourning. Others have rehearsed the process so that we can get it right. Byzantine icons of the koimesis, or Dormition, of Mary, show the Apostles gathered about the draped bier in regular locations: Peter at the head, Paul at the foot, John at the side, his long fingers grasping the hand of the Virgin Mother or venturing to her waist. Christ holds aloft Mary’s soul in the form of a child, handing it to the waiting angels. The bumps of toylike faces, of shoulders slumping in sorrow, are carved into ivory now desiccated, its tooth, or grain, running vertical in some icons and horizontal in others. I find the images most compelling when the tooth runs horizontal and the carved folds of robes resist it, dropping groundward, and ascent through arms lifted, insisting upward, seems eternally imminent.

Jewish tradition has three mourning periods: the first week, the first month, the first year of loss. When there are prescribed time periods, there is also an end. During the week after my father’s death, the shiv’a (seven), we covered mirrors, sat on low stools; people came to visit and brought food; we reminisced about the deceased, good- and bad-mouthing him; we discussed family traits, habits, illnesses. I wondered if his life could have been otherwise, if he was sometimes happy, why I was still angry, whether I could have should have said given taken. I remembered closeness across an abyss.

On the last day, the rabbi’s wife came to remind us that it was time to get up. Don’t just stand up, she said, take a walk around the block, go back to life. So we filed out the door, haltingly, into cold air, my mother and my brothers and I, down the street, past the leaning tree, around the corner, past the house with the picnic table. I used the occasion to take a closer look. There was no sign that a splinter had ever been dislodged: the tabletop was perfectly smooth.