The Tooth: a true story

Belle Boggs


My mother had marked the offending date on the calendar with a dark cloud and two jagged bolts of lightning. Raindrops fell from the eighth to the other days of the month—the 14th, 15th and 16th, and the 21st and 22nd and 23rd. The rain fell all the way down the page, presumably into the next month and beyond.

My mother has always drawn on everything, and I remember feeling embarrassed as a kid when friends came over to see our refrigerator’s rusty door painted over with Georgia O’Keefe’s vaginal desert flowers, or that our carton of oatmeal had been modified—a blue dress and pearls added to make the dour Quaker resemble first lady Barbara Bush. Why couldn’t I have a normal mother, a normal fridge, a normal carton of oatmeal? Now I saw that I had grown up to be like her: heartbroken and helpless, except for the art that surrounded me.

It was Thanksgiving, a day we hoped would be exempt from those fat calendar raindrops. The house smelled good, like onions and garlic and butter. There were two high chairs pulled up to the long dining table, for my brother’s son and my daughter, children who did not know the name that I won’t speak here, and who both take intermittent sleeplessness as a routine fact of life. The children were happy, joyful even, and we looked at them with love and envy.

We adults had all been sleepless, spinning nightly plans for Canada and Costa Rica and passports and visas and health insurance, thinking thoughts of fear and regret about our neighbors, our racist, sexist neighbors, whom we’d known to be gun-loving and coal-rolling and tea-partying, all along. At the 7-11, the day after that dark day, my father watched a man ask the clerk for a commemorative newspaper. “You like him?” my dad asked. The man replied with a hearty yes. “Maybe you can meet him someday,” my dad said. “Maybe he can grab your wife by the pussy.”

That was the mental and social atmosphere we were trying to shake off, with turkey and cranberries and stuffing. My mother, maybe the most sleepless of us all, had gotten up at four AM to roast the turkey. Here’s the thing: she’s a vegetarian, all the women in my family are vegetarian, my brother even married a vegetarian. We are vegetarian women who cook meat for men, not that the men make us or oppress us but oppression is subtle, isn’t it? Sometimes you just kind of internalize it. Because Mom started cooking so early, we sat down to the table for the earliest Thanksgiving we’d ever celebrated, as if we were afraid—maybe we were afraid—someone would come and take it from us. It wasn’t even noon when we refilled our glasses. The children amused us with their antics, and we talked about other things.

After dinner I began to make a poached pear pie from a Martha Stewart recipe. The pie was complicated, with too many steps and too many ingredients, like almost all of Martha’s recipes, and probably a lot of things in her life, I was thinking, but that doesn’t mean she should have gone to jail. What is it about powerful and successful women, that makes men want to put them in jail?

I was making this pie and thinking about Martha, and the children were watching football with my dad, and my mother was outside, walking her ancient Schnauzer, when it happened. She fell over the mini schnauzer, who is nearly blind, onto her tooth. The tooth went way up, into her gum. When she came inside, her face was covered in blood and she was crying, standing over the sink, and bleeding.

“I’m not crying because it hurts,” she told me. “I’m crying because it was so stupid.”

We spent the rest of Thanksgiving calling emergency dentists, who didn’t answer—maybe they were big game hunting—but no, that is only me being negative and suspicious. They were having Thanksgiving too. Maybe some of them were afraid, these dentists, and tired. The pie went uneaten. Finally my sister-in-law, a nurse, gave Mom a Xanax and had her lie down in bed and gripped the tooth with a paper towel and yanked it back into place.


That is how we’ll always remember that Thanksgiving—by the atmosphere of dread and fear, and by my mother’s tooth. For a while you could almost forget that the tooth was injured—the dentist the next day said it would probably be okay, and would not even require a root canal. But then the next, a specialty dentist, took a different X-ray, and that one showed that my mother’s skull had cracked, just a hairline fracture but still. She might need partial dentures.

“A partial!” my mother wailed. We all thought then about my grandpa, who was dead in West Virginia and liked to take his partial out before dinner, mostly to upset my grandma. How would he have voted? We didn’t like to think.

That was how things went, for a while—terrible, then you thought maybe there was a reprieve and you forgot that things were terrible, then they were terrible again. Terrible, forgetful, terrible. That was the pattern. That was last year.

In January my mother came to visit. She carried a sign—RESIST—that trailed green glitter onto the sidewalk. My daughter carried a sign, my husband carried a sign. RESIST, LOVE WILL WIN, RESIST. We walked with our neighbors and friends to the march. I asked my mother on the way if she’d been to the dentist, how her tooth and facial bone were doing.

“It’s healing,” she said. “My dentist says it’s a tough bone.”

I thought of the bone in my mother’s face, knitting itself back together. We marched. No rain fell that day, not on us.


Belle Boggs is the author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood and Mattaponi Queen, a collection of linked stories set along Virginia’s Mattaponi River. The Art of Waiting was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and was named a best book of the year by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the Globe and Mail, Buzzfeed, and O the Oprah Magazine. Mattaponi Queen won the Bakeless Prize, the Library of Virginia Literary Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and she teaches in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

3 Replies to “The Tooth: a true story”

  1. Pat Hoppe says:

    Absolutely wonderful! I love you and your whole family, Belle Boggs!

  2. Beth Browne says:

    Beautiful, sad story. Thank you!

  3. Rachel Hall says:

    Oh, this is so lovely and moving!