DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Why some of us don't smile much

My maternal grandmother, Annie Lee Smith, was a tiny woman who began each morning kneading biscuit dough, frying bacon or sausage, and seemingly enjoying breakfast at her kitchen table. I had no idea until just over a year ago how hard it must have been for the woman I called Nana to enjoy those meals--to eat with etiquette and grace and to do so without complaint.

Nana was always neatly dressed, her long gray hair tied into a bun, a humble dress, an apron she'd sewn from a flour sack. But for as long as I can remember, Nana had no teeth, no dentures and certainly no implants.

I remember she ate slowly but without mentioning any difficulty chewing her food. Perhaps she didn't complain because she knew this suffering was minor by comparison to her son's death during World War II and another son's death from tuberculosis.

I'm more fortunate, so I complain but rarely in public, for I don't want most people to know I wear dentures, or false teeth as they called them in the old days.

My problems began when I was about 30. My dentist pulled my wisdom teeth and capped my other teeth for reasons too complicated to explain here. He put the caps so close together that it was difficult if not impossible to use floss effectively.

Then almost seven years ago, I had a routine colonoscopy, which requires heavy sedation. When I got home, I took a nap and later got up to go to the restroom. I became quite dizzy and passed out on the cold tile floor. My mouth crashed against the floor, and my upper teeth broke into tiny pieces.

I had to have my remaining upper teeth pulled almost immediately. I couldn't afford implants, though people far wealthier than I weren't shy about recommending them. As it was, I could barely afford the extractions and the denture plate. Over the coming years my lower teeth gradually worsened despite my taking care of them. Almost every visit to the dentist led to bad news--a referral to a specialist, a root canal, an extraction. Until March 2019, I was able to limit the extractions mostly to my molars.

But the pain was worsening, and I had to have all of my remaining lower teeth extracted and get another denture plate--one that may never fit as well as the upper plate does.

No longer do I enjoy dining in public, whether alone or with friends. When I can, I nibble on my food in the restaurant and get most of it to go. Once at home, I remove my dentures and eat alone.

What no one warned me about is that an upper denture plate prevents a person from tasting food because the plate covers the roof of the mouth. The bottom plate is harder to fit perfectly and can almost fall out during a meal. And food gets disgustingly stuck to both plates.

But you know what is harder than eating in public? Pretending to smile when people who don't know I wear dentures joke about people who have lost their teeth, a problem some apparently view as most common among rednecks, based on the cartoon-like pictures some people post online.

I'm sure I'm going to regret writing this column. And, no, I'm not up to talking about the matter publicly. I find it incredibly humiliating, largely because of the way our society makes fun of people who have lost their teeth whether through accident, decay or other problems.

So, if you run into me at the grocery store, please don't mention the topic. Write if you must.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 05/03/2020

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