Oral History

Don’t swallow the toothpaste and other lessons straight from a dentist-approved mouth.

Author: Erin Buckley ’08

Last visit my dentist told me I had the second-best teeth he’d seen all day. The top slot was awarded to a 7-year-old. When I heard the news, I clicked the toes of my shoes together in self-satisfaction, which would have been difficult if I had been standing but was easy considering I was on my back in the gray chair. 

My teeth come from my grandfather Pa, my mom’s dad. When I was growing up I wished for my dad’s teeth, which were whiter and straighter. My dad had braces and my mom didn’t. But Dad is prone to cavities, which is immediately apparent if he opens his jaws wide. Turns out the megawatt smile comes with behind-the-scenes hardware.

I underwent some late learning curves regarding dental care. I remember standing by the sink in our utility room when my brother told me I shouldn’t be swallowing my toothpaste. I scoffed, thinking it was just a brotherly ploy. I gulped when he pointed out the instructions on the tube. Whatever age I was, I was old enough to have known this already. By that time I had absorbed enough elementary school folklore. I didn’t believe that swallowing a watermelon seed would make a watermelon grow inside my stomach, but gum sticking to my stomach lining for 17 years seemed plausible. I considered the damage done, my stomach lined in a smooth coat of Crest sparkly blue gel.

It has only been within the past decade that I have learned the proper brushing technique, which apparently is not to brush too hard. My mom had to get surgery to remove gum from the roof of her mouth and place it over her bottom row of teeth. According to my x-rays, my dentist thinks I’m headed that way too.

Buckley Xrays Featured
What the dentist sees

It wouldn’t be my first oral surgery. The summer before college I had all four wisdom teeth pulled. That afternoon my Dad constructed a wooden shelf for our DVD player. Mom was out of town. I was snug on the couch with chipmunk cheeks watching Anne of Green Gables and Dad was out with power tools in the backyard. I don’t remember if I considered this odd at the time. But years later as Mom described the scene she got a hazy look in her eyes and her chin puffed out: “He couldn’t bear to see you in pain.” It seems like Dad: finding something to fix, some tangible way to improve the situation.

After the surgery I willed myself not to talk. I was cautioned by memories of my brother Austin who had the same surgery two years prior and under anesthesia repeated things which became instilled as family legend. Wanting to avoid adding to the family annals, I kept silent.

But toothbrushing was not a silent subject growing up. At times it was a mantra. I can remember my mom including it in post-dinner instructions to my little brother: “Pick up your laundry. Practice your multiplication tables. Brush your teeth.” A finger corresponded to each directive: one, two, three. She would then reduce the sentences into a chant — “Laundry Multiplication Teeth” — and start repeating it as my brother crossed the family room. Anything to increase the likelihood it would stick all the way up the staircase and into his bedroom.

Once I saw my mom thumbing the bristles on my brother’s toothbrush after he had gone to school, to see if they were wet or not. I had never even considered this possibility. Along with retrieving wayward items from garbage disposals and scrubbing toilets: oh, the places mothers’ hands go.

Erin Buckley And Pa
The author and Pa, from whence her good teeth came.

My mom’s hands also come to mind whenever I get to the end of a tube of toothpaste. Mom’s ability to maximize a tube is like her ability to spatula out the dregs of a plastic mayonnaise jar: she has a knack for crevices. As I slide my fingers up a flimsy tube I feel obligated to uphold the family honor, pressing towards a target to extend the tube’s life a few days past that of the average user.   

I wouldn’t have known my teeth were Pa’s unless Mom told me. I can picture Pa reclining after a meal preening his mouth with a toothpick. My two sets of grandparents met the weekend my parents were married in Gulfport, Mississippi. At the end of the weekend as Nana and Pops packed for the drive back to Pennsylvania, Pa gave Pops a bag full of toothpicks. Pops always found this a peculiarly thoughtful parting gift. For Pa, it likely just seemed useful.  

I don’t use a toothpick but I do floss — twice a day — which is one reason my dentist gave me high marks. And each evening I select my nightwear. Few things make me feel more an adult than acknowledging a relationship with an orthodontic device that will persist ad infinitum. Over a 25-year period, I have had only one replacement retainer. It is peculiar how little the mouth grows, like a stadium entrance that admits countless throngs over the years but retains its original arch.

I alternate my retainer with a night guard which protects against grinding. I made the mold myself: boiled the plastic in a pot, let it cool for 30 seconds, then inserted it into my mouth and clenched down like a linebacker. I used the same pot I pop popcorn in, which I have never mentioned to my housemate. I figure as long as it’s washed out it should be OK.

Overall I think the routine is working. At my last visit to the dentist they recommended I use a water flosser device. I haven’t updated to an electric toothbrush so I don’t anticipate ordering any specialty instrument. Plus, seeing as I’m still coming in at No. 2 in my dentist’s day — and No. 1 in the adult category — I’ll take my chances.

Erin Buckley lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an occupational therapist.