My Father’s Teeth
In my job at an art museum, years later, I learned that some drawings have not teeth but tooth, a wash of finely ground stone or bone or shell applied to paper to form a faintly nubbled surface that elicits more from soft pencil than a smooth sheet would. The application of tooth was common in the Renaissance; I like to think it is associated with the emergence of Humanism.
When I chewed on a fingernail, back in the days of filching grapes, my father would yell at me to stop, then mockingly offer his own finger instead, with its vestige of axle grease (from his work in a gas station he knew the limits of Borax soap). Sometimes I would take him up on the deal, and bite down hard around a joint. My mother, who is clamoring from her perch in Heaven to be remembered in this account and wishes not to have to wait for an elegy of her own, used to playfully bite my arm on occasion. It was an expression of affection, and it left an accurate imprint of uppers and lowers to remember her by. Somewhere between my elbow and my wrist you could see the space between her two front teeth and the way her canines splayed slightly. I had what psychologists call a boundary problem: where did her mouth end and my arm begin?
I think of Renaissance artists with their study sheets, albeit executed in graphite, not enamel. Paper was at a premium, and often mismatched subjects—legs, lintels, mothers, daughters—shared the limited space.
We trace a tortuous border between lub and love.
I lived abroad in my twenties, and once my parents came to witness my new life. My mother learned, in answer to a question, that I was not quite as virginal as she’d assumed. Now I wonder: I lied to her about grapes; why not about sex? Maybe I wanted her to know me and love me anyway. Maybe I wanted to torment her. Maybe I wanted to be as liberated as my friends, whose parents grew up under American shingle, not Eastern European thatch. Sitting at the kitchen table in my student apartment, my mother cried. Just don’t tell your father, she said. And later told him herself.
You’re living a filthy life, he said to me. You’ve ruined our vacation and our health.
Toothmarks are of many types.
In my father’s last years, we used to walk around the block during my visits. A short way down the street was the “leaning tree”—a wide-gauge trunk that would absorb his weight when he was tired—and halfway around the block was a house with a picnic table on the lawn that the owners had offered as a way station. We had talks there. What was the scariest thing about dying, I wanted to know. If they put you in the box before you’re dead. I adlibbed about measurable brain waves and reassured him that when he died he would be very dead. He also said, on that picnic bench, that he wished he could be frozen for fifty years and come back and see what the world was like. He would probably have been fascinated by the laptop with which I started violating his memory only twelve years out—and now I have a faster one as I rewrite, using him as compost, fertilizing phrases with his nitrogen.
Marsha Pomerantz is the author of The Illustrated Edge, a collection of poems (Biblioasis, 2011). Her poems and essays have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, berfrois.com, Harvard Review, PN Review, and Raritan, and the memoir “Right/Left: A Triptych” was included in Best American Essays 2016.