Dad kept his false teeth in the top drawer of his bureau, about a dozen pairs in various states of disrepair. The uppers and lowers didn’t always match. Sometimes he’d break one half of a set and tried to match up the remaining one with an orphan left over from another mishap. And then there was the time he broke his upper plate in half, just because he was mad and needed to break something. That was when he was in the hospital one time. He was out of his mind when he did it, of course, but it was genuine Dad just the same.
Dad worked on his dentures all the time. He mostly used two or three files and a couple of blades on his Swiss army knife to make adjustments. Out in the garage he had rigged a vise on the end of an old picnic table. Sometimes he put a plate in the vise and worked on it with his files. Dentures are pretty fragile to put up with that kind of treatment. Most of the broken plates were the result of Dad’s energetic attempts to fine-tune his dentures. Even when the plates held together, he was never satisfied with the adjustments that he made.
The way I see it, Dad was operating on a false premise. He thought dentures were supposed to work, maybe even better than natural teeth. I think he never figured out what false teeth were really about. My aunt was different. When she got her upper plate Mom said, “Mary, they look very nice. How do they feel?” Aunt Mary said they were fine as long as she didn’t try to use them. She saw and accepted that dentures served an aesthetic function, mainly. She understood it and acted on it, and she got along pretty well.
But Dad wanted to eat apples and chew steak the way he did in the past, and the way they do in denture adhesive commercials on TV. His own teeth had let him down and he figured that a bought set, a scientifically engineered and manufactured set, so to speak, would be better and more reliable. That did not prove to be the case. So Dad kept making adjustments and breaking plates, and the collection in his bureau drawer kept on growing.
You might wonder why he didn’t just throw them away when he was dissatisfied with them. He’d try on a set once in while, but they didn’t improve sitting in the drawer, so he didn’t end up wearing them for long. Of course, they had cost a great deal of money, and Dad was known to be tight with a dollar, but he knew they had no use. No use to him—and he certainly didn’t think anyone else was going to wear them.
But he had a perfectly good reason for keeping them. He kept them because they made him mad. Dad liked to be mad. He felt more alive when he was mad about something. He could work up a pretty good rage complaining about his dentures, and whoever was near him at the time had to listen to it all. That was Mom most of the time, but she stopped hearing him a long time ago. She would sit quietly at the kitchen table and work on the bridge problem in the newspaper while Dad cursed all dentists and their conspiracy to prevent him from having a pair of workable dentures.
You could tell what state of mind Dad was in by whether his dentures were in or out. Mostly, he started with them in, of course, but sooner or later the upper plate—or it might be the lower plate—would be out of his mouth and he’d be working on it with one of his tools. When he was feeling well-disposed toward the rest of the family he did his denture adjustments out of their sight—or at least at a distance. When he was feeling mad at the world he did the fine-tuning right at the kitchen table while everyone else was eating lunch. When things were really bad he’d go around with no teeth, his two plates rattling in the breast pocket of his shirt. If you walked into the house and saw that, you knew to be careful. He was a little more circumspect around strangers, as long as he was feeling good.
Dad did do at least one good deed through his denture habits, even though it was entirely inadvertent. When my nephew, Mom and Dad’s only grandson, was very little he had the habit of sucking his thumb. Everyone had tried to persuade him to stop doing it but he persisted. Somebody—his mother or Mom, I’m not sure which—warned him that sucking his thumb would ruin his teeth. Well, he happened to be visiting and discovered Dad asleep on the sofa. His dentures had slipped out of his pocket and lay on the sofa next to his face. My nephew was horrified and stopped sucking his thumb almost immediately. So we chalk up at least one success to Dad’s dentures, even though he had no idea what he had accomplished.
Dad, now 87, is living in a nursing home at present, and “the family” does his laundry so that his clothes won’t be ruined by the industrial laundry and excessively hot water. Which means that I do his laundry, and it took a little time before I learned to search his pockets very carefully before I put his clothes in the washing machine. One weekend my older sister took over the laundry responsibility for me, and, not quite as careful about searching pockets as I have been, ran one of Dad’s upper plates through the wash. We all agreed that the denture had not been that clean since it came from the dentist.
The staff of the nursing home where Dad lives is obsessed with labeling his belongings to prevent loss. They have even labeled his eyeglasses, which makes sense, since he is always misplacing them. But I will believe that they really know all there is to know about Dad when they attempt to label his dentures, which they have not yet done. We’ll see how long it takes.