Broadman & Holman
I couldn’t wait to get in my new teeth, anticipating how pearly white they’d be after a dreadful mouthful of black. Pearly white they were, but when they grew in, they grew straight out of the front of my gums because my displaced baby teeth had left them there. I need you to picture this. I’m not talking overbite here. I’m talking teeth you could set your sandwich on and save it for later. Are you seeing it?
In those days, for whatever excruciating reason, orthodontists made you live with teeth like that before they would put wires on them and force them into submission. Meanwhile your self-esteem suffered in ways no one with straight teeth can imagine. Certainly, worse things can happen, but the teasing I took during the two years I remained in that dreadful shape affected me for years. The fact is, much worse things had actually _happened but they weren’t nearly as overt as a mouthful of buck teeth. Factor childhood victimization into the equation, and the figures added up to some serious misery.
The climactic point of my dental crisis came in the third grade with the upcoming annual class pictures. You know, the kind with the blue background. The kind you look back on and ask, “Where was my mother?” and “What idiot let me fix my own hair?” and “What in heaven’s name was I wearing?” All of you have a picture like it, so remember you own and add my buck teeth to it. Pretty, isn’t it? I announced to my mom, “I’m not having my picture taken. I am absolutely not.” Only I didn’t say it like that. The unfortunate arrangement of my teeth left me with a decided lisp. I don’t doubt I added the word “absolutely” to force a little spit into the pronouncement.
My mother returned, “You most certainly are, young lady. You are so beautiful to us. Anyway, before you know it, we’re going to fix those teeth.”
I said, “But I’m not going to have my picture taken until we do.”
“Oh, yes, you are.” In those days I’m not sure I knew I could disobey my mother, especially if she was talking “young lady” talk. She got that look anyway. And who wants to deal with that look? On second thought, how would she like to deal with my look?
I stood in the bathroom at the mirror and practiced trying to simply shut my lips together. My lips had literally not touched since my teeth had grown in fully. My goal was not to look pretty for the picture. It was trying to look normal. I thought if I could cover the hideous things, I’d look like everyone else. No, I wouldn’t be able to smile, but perhaps I’d just look like a more serious and mature child. Meditative. Dramatic. Even exotic. Years later people would look at our elementary school yearbook and muse, “We should have all known what a serious thinker she was. Just look at her even then.” Yep, that was the plan.
I practiced until my lips were sore. I worked until I finally had a look I thought I could tolerate. At that point in my life, I kept my left hand over my face constantly. (Incidentally, when I’m upset, or when I’m feeling insecure, my family tells me I still tend to put my left hand over my mouth.) During the third grade, I even held my paper down on my desk with my left elbow, held my hand over my mouth, and wrote with my right hand. To any rational thinker, this was no time for a picture, but no mother’s love is rational, is it? Neither is their eyesight accurate.
The day came for the pictures. I stood in a long line of third graders with my stomach in a knot. Finally, the school photographer motioned to me and said, “Your turn!” I walked over to the place where “X” marked the spot and stood in front of the camera . . . with my hand over my mouth. The photographer said, “You’re going to have to put your hand down, honey.”
I asked, ”Are you ready to take the picture?”
He said, “Of course.”
My retort: “Then count to three.” All said with my hand over my face.
He counted, “One, two, three,” and I dropped my hand. He took the shot. I put my hand back up and scurried off.
“I did it!” I thought to myself victoriously. I lived through it. “That wasn’t so bad, now was it?” I asked myself. And it wasn’t until about six weeks later. At the very end of the school day, the teacher pulled out a stack of pictures and placed them with a thump on her desk. Remember the kind with the cellophane window on the front of the picture packs? That’s the one. She passed them out one by one, mentioning our names and oohing and aahing sweetly as she set them on each desk. When I realized what was about to happen, my stomach turned with dread. Sure enough, she walked over to my desk totally oblivious to the laughter that was about to break out. She slapped my picture packet down right in front of me, face up.
No one had time to see it because I fell over it immediately. No matter. They pretended they did. In my memory it sounded like a thousand kids roared with laughter, but I’m quite certain as an adult that it was only a few. You know, if I hadn’t hidden my mouth all the time, they would not have been so anxious to see it. It’s the age-old game of hide-and-seek. Anything we try to hide, someone else will try to seek. Back in the third grade I had some very sweet classmates, too, but somehow we have a hard time making out encouragement in the roar of meanness, don’t we? Some of my classmates began to make fun of me and call me by names that weren’t new to me.
I was devastated. And on second thought, I was furious. It’s always more convenient when you have someone to blame for your humiliation. A certain someone who called me “young lady” came to my mind instantly. I cried all the way home that day, and when I reached my house, I stomped straight into the kitchen where my mother and grandmother were sipping their instant Folgers. I yelled as angrily as I could, “Don’t you ever make me do anything like that again!” I took those school pictures, ripped them to shreds, and threw them in the trash. I accomplished just what I intended. I made them feel as badly as I felt. Of course, now I wish I hadn’t, but at the time I was a spout waiting to spew. Years passed and when the last orthodontist bill was paid, I’d worn some kind of wire on my teeth for twelve solid years. (I still have a retainer.) That’s how long it took to fix those teeth. (My mouth has been a lifelong challenge for God to fix.)
My precious grandmother, whom I called Nanny, passed away when I was sixteen years old. Bless Dad, she had lived with my parents since they married, so you can imagine how much her constant presence was missed. I was in my early twenties one day when I was visiting my mom at my parent’s home. She said, “You’re not going to believe what I found the other day.” She got down a box with a lid on it. On the outside of it the words “Nanny’s Keepsakes” were written in marker in my grandmother’s own handwriting. It was the most wonderful discovery.
I asked, "Where has this been?"
Mom explained that she’s found it in the attic in search of something else. When Nanny knew her days were few, she apparently boxed up some treasures she’d kept for decades so they’d all be in one place. She probably put it in her closet, and after she died, my mother gathered up all her things that weren’t suitable for Goodwill and put them in the attic. I’m sure Mom didn’t have the heart to look through them closely at the time. When she stumbled on the box in the attic years later, she’d forgotten it even existed.
“I’ve not had a chance to really look through it. I’ve just taken the top off. Let’s you and I take a look,” Mom said. It was just like finding a royal box of buried treasure. Inside was my grandfather’s bookkeeping ledger. He was a lawyer during the Great Depression. I was so intrigued by the kinds of things he recorded as his payment for services. On many of the spaces for payments received, he’d written “the eggs or the ham.” No charge. On the box were letters my Nanny’s sons had written her while overseas in World War II. Precious things. Priceless things. Things that defined her better than any written biography ever could. I found her Bible, marked with her own red pen. For the length of time I shared a feather bed with her, I remember a rare night when I didn’t go to sleep with her reading God’s Word right next to me.
I could not believe what treasures were spread before us from the box marked “Nanny’s Keepsakes.” I pulled every iten out one by one and studied them carefully. Thinking I’d surveyed everything in the box, I started to tuck the keepsakes back in their places when I caught a glimpse of a thin white envelope wedged in the corner. I picked it up, and the weightlessness of it made me assume it was empty. However, it was clearly sealed.
I asked my mom if she knew what it was.
“I have no idea, honey.”
“Well, I wonder if we should open it?”
She said, “I’d say Nanny’s not going to. If you want to know what’s in it, you’re going to have to open it yourself.”
I slipped my finger through the buckled edge very carefully. I couldn’t help but imagine my grandmother licking the seal and sliding her index finger across the envelope to make sure it was closed. When I’d opened it, it appeared empty so I shrugged with disappointment and said to my mom, “There’s nothing in it.” Then something caught my eye. In the corner of the envelope was a torn piece of an old picture. I pulled it out, and to my total astonishment it was a piece of a picture of a little bucktoothed girl in the third grade.
I can only assume that my grandmother had pulled that picture out of the trash, sealed it in an envelope, and put it in a safe place. When she gathered her treasures, somehow she placed it among them. I looked at my mother, tears streaming down my cheeks, and cried, “Why did she do that?” Nanny loved all of her grandchildren. She did not love me more than any of the rest. I could not imagine why she’d thought to do such a thing.
Mom honestly didn’t know. Neither did I for many years. In retrospect, however, I think I’ve figured it out. The answer is hope. Pure, biblical, life-sustaining, gloriously unreasonable hope. Everything is possible for him who believes, our Savior said. Though I believe my grandmother suspected something was amiss with me, I don’t think she knew I’d ever been victimized. In reality, my severe overbite was the least of my problems. All she probably knew was that I was a troubled child, scared of her own shadow, quick to tears and, in her estimation, sweet and gentle. After all, for too short a time I was the only one of her grandchildren that had actually been her roommate. I believe my grandmother pulled out that picture, prayed over me, sealed me in an envelope, and said something like, “I will never see what you do with this life, but I can hope.” (Jesus, the One and Only, session 10) Yes, you can hope.