Like Pulling Teeth

Last week I went to the dentist. I have been a patient of Dr. McCoach for many years. I trust him completely and never question any decisions he makes regarding my dental health.

I grew up in the 1960s, before they put fluoride in the water, before the days of electric toothbrushes and interdental products. I don’t recall ever seeing a hygienist. The drills that went into my mouth shuddered vigorously and felt like jackhammers on my teeth. Our local dentist, Dr. Wilberforce (or Will-by-force as my father called him), was bossy and gruff. Dr. Paine was the perfect business partner – an ideal match in both name and temperament.

My mother was a firm believer in good dental care. She had worked, for many years, as a dental assistant in Switzerland. One afternoon, a woman arrived at Dr. Guebeli’s surgery with excruciating toothache. She had come a long way, on foot, she explained, and was disheartened to learn that the doctor had been called away. Anxious to help the woman, my mother slipped a piece of cotton thread round the tooth and tied the other end to the handle of an open door. She then slammed the door shut. The woman was extremely grateful but a little puzzled that Dr. Guebeli’s colleague wanted no payment for her trouble.

Many years later, our daughter Polly had a wobbly front tooth which hung by a thread for days into weeks. Eventually, my mother-in-law tried the door knob trick. I envisioned a fountain of blood and high-pitched screams from our 7 year-old but no … the tooth was out in a jiffy. No blood. No pain. Amazing.

My mother-in-law, like my mother, knew a thing or two about teeth. At the turn of the last century, her parents, Otto and Leni, emigrated to rural Latvia where, legend has it, they became cheese-makers to the Tsar. Before they left Switzerland, Leni, who was in her early twenties, had her teeth pulled and replaced with a full set of dentures. It was a practical solution, intended to save her pain and money over the course of her long life. It always struck me as strange that Otto got to keep his teeth. My mother-in-law used to say that in her next life, she planned to return with hair on her teeth. The image made me think of werewolves. It also made me wonder how a young woman in her twenties might have felt as she sat down in the dentist’s chair, making ready to have 32 perfectly healthy teeth extracted.

Teeth, like fingerprints are unique and, unlike the bones in our bodies, they can’t heal if they are damaged. In the words of Dr. Seuss When you get your second set, that’s all the teeth you’ll ever get.

By the time I was 9 years old, my mother had given up on Drs. Wilberforce and Paine and registered me with a dental practice on Wimpole Street in London’s medical district. I enjoyed these days out with my mother. I would get a day off school and after my appointment, we always went to the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square for a slice of Engadiner Nusstorte – walnuts coated in caramel sauce and baked into a shortbread pie. Whenever Dr. Calvert asked me if I had anything nice planned for the rest of the day, I lied. I didn’t think he would approve of all that sugar.

When we went to Switzerland on holiday, my mother would take me to see her former employers – Dr. Guebeli and Dr Beguin because, well, you could never quite trust those English dentists, even those with fancy offices in London.

Last week, as I rose from the dental chair, Dr. McCoach (who is from New Zealand) asked me about Polly and Lucy who had been his patients when they were teenagers. I told him that, between them, they had just one filling, to which he replied You have given them a gift for life. I thought about Lea and all the time and money she had invested in my dental health. It’s thanks to my mother, really, I said. She taught me the importance of looking after my teeth.