We’d been happily talking for a few minutes before I spotted the huge chip in my mum’s tooth but, once I did, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was a rectangular hole at the bottom of her front tooth, looking jagged and black and so strangely incongruous that it seemed to change her whole face in an instant.
“Mum!” I interrupted her story, “What is that? What did you do to your tooth?!?” She instinctively stuck her tongue in the spot, which momentarily turned pink and then back to black again.
“Oh,” she laughed casually, “I chipped it years ago and Dr. Sams put a little cap in it. He told me it might not last so I should be careful about biting into apples or carrots, but it’s stayed in all this time.” I did a quick calculation: Dr. Sams had been our dentist when I was in grade school, so she must have had that cap for nearly thirty years. I was impressed it lasted so long.
“So what happened?” Not that there was any need to ask — it probably just fell out after all these years. It was to be expected, really.
“Well, I’ve had these stains on my teeth lately,” she said, opening her mouth so I could have a look. The ends of her front teeth, top and bottom, were a bit tea-stained. Not badly though, nothing that a trip to the dentist wouldn’t clean up. “And I was cleaning the teacups,” she continued, “when I noticed how well the spray cleaned the stains away…”
For years, I’ve felt a certain wariness about my mother. It’s not a wariness of her as a person — she’s a wonderful person — but of her judgment. She has an unfazable optimism that leads her to consider the craziest of things to be reasonable risks. I was never quite able to put my finger on it before — living in the UK, I saw her for only a couple of weeks a year, not a long enough observation time to confirm what my gut was telling me. But since moving back to the US, I’ve begun to realise something that I should have always known — a girl should always trust her gut.
I took a quick breath and tried to smile back just as casually before asking, “What spray is that, Mum?”
“That mold and mildew spray… You know, the kind you buy for the bath? I use it to clean the stains out of my teacups. It really works well!”
That spray is mostly just bleach, with a few other bits and bobs added in to justify the price. I’m not surprised it gets the stains out — I’ve used bleach to clean teacups before, when they’re really badly stained. No harm in that as long as they’re well rinsed.
She continued. “So I thought, if it gets the stains out of the cup so well…”
I knew what she was about to say and it wasn’t going to be a surprise, but I was I so horrified that I couldn’t stop myself. I jumped in, “You sprayed it in your mouth?!?”
She was immediately defensive, and annoyed, and I regretted my indiscretion. “No! No, of course not! I sprayed it on my toothbrush a few times.” I’m sure my face was still aghast, so she ramped it up. “I ran water over it! It was well diluted!” I was unconvinced.
“Mum! That stuff is toxic! You’re lucky you didn’t do yourself real damage!” I was horrified at her obvious lack of judgment, and it showed. “You could have ended up in hospital — you’re not supposed to put that stuff in your mouth!” There, now I sounded like I was talking to a two-year-old.
“Well… well, I’m fine!” she replied, indignant now, annoyed with me for being so annoyed with her. “Nothing happened to me!”
“But your cap fell out,” I prodded with the obvious. I was glad she was ok, very glad, but I couldn’t let her try to paint all this as a perfectly normal thing to do.
“Two days later it did,” she said dismissively, as if the delay meant it might possibly not be related at all. “And besides, it’s hardly noticeable!” The irritation was thick now, tension heavy in the air, and someone needed to smooth things over. I tried.
“Well, I’m sure a dentist can fix it…” I mumbled pathetically, and quickly changed the subject.
But it was noticeable, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Like a bloke whose stare keeps falling unconsciously to a woman’s breasts, no matter how much I fought it, my gaze kept returning to the black hole in her teeth. Even as I forced myself to look away, it called my eyes back. It grew ever larger, ever blacker. Her whole face became nothing more than a frame to the fascinating, hypnotic hole in her tooth.
She noticed my staring and grew quietly more annoyed. It’s against our rules of engagement for me to criticise my mother, even if it is just by looking at the result of her folly. A daughter is not meant to think her own mother a fool. It goes against the hierarchy, against the natural order of things. I was overstepping the bounds, and we both knew it.
Coming home today, I heard a small click from the back seat as I pulled the car into the driveway, and looked back to see E1 pulling her seatbelt off. She’d never done that before — in fact, I’ve been very careful to avoid her noticing how the seatbelt works at all, slipping my hand around her discretely and deftly pressing the button before she’s even realised what’s happening. A four-year-old who knows how to undo her seatbelt can get out of the car in a carpark while I’m struggling with her sister, she can undo her seatbelt while I’m driving, she’s not safe to leave in the car if I have to dash back into the house to grab something I’ve forgot. She can (and will) teach her sister how to undo her straps as well. And of course, she can undo her seatbelt before I’ve finished pulling into the driveway, as she’d just done. This new development was bad news. I’d been dreading the day she figured it out, and I was irritated that it had finally happened.
I put the car in park and turned round in my seat. “How do you know how to do that?” I roared. “WHO taught you that?!?”
She was shocked at my reaction, but proud enough of her new achievement to be still beaming regardless. “Grandma did!”
And… I knew that already. Even before she’d said it, I knew the answer. Of course it had been my mother who had taught her how to undo her seatbelt. Never for a moment would she have thought the better of doing it.