Mama grew up on a farm in Depression-era eastern North Carolina. Money was scarce, with little room for luxuries like going to the dentist. She was embarrassed by her crooked, wide-gapped teeth and covered her mouth when she giggled. That and giggling were habits she never broke. Thank the good Lord for the latter. Her laughter was the medicine of my childhood.
That she giggled often is an understatement. She lived to make people laugh, and she was good at it. She wanted to smile. She wanted other people to laugh. So she had every one of her teeth pulled and had dentures made when she was a young woman. She was thrilled with the results! Mama was so proud of her new look that she smiled brightly for the camera for the rest of her life.
Once she did slightly chip a front tooth. She was upset at first, then decided the chip made her teeth look more natural. Her glass, even the ones holding her teeth all night, was always half-full.
Mama didn’t just use those teeth for smiling and eating. She used them for pure entertainment value. They were props to her humor. I’ve yet to see anyone who could flick their teeth out and back so fast, keeping an otherwise perfectly straight face. My cousins, more than twenty of them, loved it. They would beg her to do it for them. “Show me your teef, Aint Annie!” (That’s right -“Aint Annie.” We children of the Piedmont region called our aunts “aint.” So did Mayberry’s Opie and Sheriff Andy Taylor who must have thought that was just fine for Aint Bee.)
As for teeth-popping, even church wasn’t off-limits. There she usually, and I use that word loosely, only used her skill for correcting children misbehaving during the preaching services. Let some kid get the wiggles on a hard wooden pew and out those tools of correction came, hard and fast. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen kids slump back into their pews, duly chastised and not a little freaked out.
It was amazing how fast she could pop those suckers in-and-out before returning to her pious, attentive look, Bible opened and clasped to her ample bosom. Every now and then she got caught by adults who spent the rest of the service trying so hard not to laugh that tears rolled down their cheeks. One time she brought down the whole choir. My poor pastor had to wonder what in the world he had just said or thought, “Is my fly open?”
Mama’s been gone for twenty-six years now. She was only three years older than I am now when she left us. I’d give anything to see her “stick her teef out” one more time. Then again, I know I’ll see her again someday. She’ll be wearing a perfect smile, no doubt bringing down celestial choirs if she gets half a chance.