My Father’s Teeth

Marsha Pomerantz
| Memoir


Ah mayseh, he would have said in Yiddish: a yarn. Believe that and she’ll tell you another one.

Another one is this: even as we sat on the wooden benches discussing cryogenics, he was easing a splinter off the edge of the table to dislodge a last bit of lunch from between his teeth.


When I was in the third grade I had a brand-new slim spelling book, for which I made my usual cover, out of a brown paper A&P bag. Though I liked the smell and feel of the book, the spelling lists and exercises were contemptibly simple, as innocuous as the large sans-serif type. So I tried them out on my father, who had come to the U.S. at age eighteen and never had much formal education.

One morning I sat on his side of the bed when he was still in it, a rare lazy Sunday, and put him through the drill. In the process I tried to correct his pronunciation. He had trouble baring his teeth around the word girl. He humored me, exaggerated his accent, played for mistakes. Goil. Girl. Goiruuul. Girl. Despite my pretensions to ownership of the language we were speaking, he seemed to enjoy the game. I realize now that role reversal appealed to him. He was an infant when his father died; the glimpse of his mother running alongside his train as it left the village for Warsaw in 1923 was his last sight of her. He reminded me that I was her namesake. I should be making him pancakes, he said. You’re supposed to take care of me.


The last few days I saw my father alive, I took some satisfaction in spooning Ensure into him. Vitamin pudding from a can. Another day, another sunset that signalled its indifference through the windows of his room at the nursing home.

I brought him slices of Bosc pear, his favorite fruit, which he dutifully chewed. Then he opened his mouth, and it was all still there, Bosc bits in the crannies and under the tongue.

The next day, when I proffered a spoonful of pudding, he clenched his teeth. He was still present in his eyes, and they were defiant. The spoon clacked again against enamel. He was finished with living.


My mother and I were sitting at the dinette table in the house where I grew up and she still lived. No tooth marks, just two people face to face, two years after my father’s death. I was sure I heard her bones crunch when I said maybe it was time to stop mourning, to seek people out again, enjoy the everyday. I’m not mourning for him anymore, she said. I’m mourning for my own life.

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,, Harvard Review, PN Review, and Raritan, and the memoir “Right/Left: A Triptych” was included in Best American Essays 2016.

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