Our granddaughter Maayan has now completed three years of dental school. She will soon be the third dentist in our family, and the first female.
Dentistry is a long and ambitious career choice, and she has more years of studying and practicing ahead as she works toward becoming an orthodontist. Maybe by the time she finishes, I’ll let her try to straighten my teeth. She’d be the second family member to attempt this feat, the first being my Uncle Charlie in around 1950. Anyone looking at my teeth would never believe that I ever wore braces. That’s entirely due to my self-removal of the myriad wires, not to mention rubber bands and other assorted tortures, that Charlie installed to give me a brilliant smile.
Charlie was to become the fulfillment of my grandmother Peshka’s dream. He was her middle child, and she had high hopes that he would become a dentist. I will never know why she chose dentistry as opposed to other professions, such as medicine or law, but Charlie took her advice and attended NYU Dental School, a hefty expense paid for by his parents’ labors at the family-owned Borscht Belt hotel known as the Bauman House.
Once Charlie had finished school and opened an office on the second floor of the Bauman brownstone on Vernon Avenue in Bed-Stuy, Peshka knew he was set. He had nice professional cards printed, and she circulated them among the neighbors and passersby along Throop and Tompkins avenues. She would sweetly stop people to ask if they needed a new doctor. Often they would become angry and ask if she wanted them to be sick. “No, no, no,” she would protest. “Not that kind of doctor.”
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Thus Peshka helped to kick off Charlie’s practice and lived to see his fully equipped office. The hard work involved in raising the huge amounts of money to support this endeavor may be what finally killed her. She died young, but her dream had become a reality. Charlie had become a dentist. I still remember his hunched body standing over his patients. Dentists, in those days, didn’t use chairs when they worked, creating a dental hump, which is how I always remember my uncle, these many years after his sudden death.
My mother used to always tell me that her brother Charlie was the best dentist in the world. Charlie seemed to have believed it too. He never let a colleague work on his own mouth and I remember watching him standing in front of the mirror in his office filling his own cavities. When Charlie then became an orthodontist, it was obvious that he would be the designated tooth-straightener for his niece who had horribly crooked teeth. That was me.
The only problem with the arrangement was that Charlie had opened his orthodontic practice in Queens and we lived in Newark. So here I was, at 11, schlepping to Queens by myself as often as was necessary. Too often for me! I had to take the 107 bus, which stopped on the corner of Aldine Street and Lyons Avenue. That was easy. Next I had to wander the intimidating and huge Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan to arrive at the right subway station, and then from the subway stop take a bus to Springfield Boulevard, where Charlie did his magic.
This was a long and sometimes scary trip. I didn’t like it at all. After about two years of these goings and comings, I took things into my own hands and removed the braces. That was not an easy job. Mom correctly predicted I would be sorry. Indeed I am. But if there’s one truth about history, it’s that you cannot undo the done.
And so I’ve spent my life with crooked teeth. There are worse things.
But when each of our four kids needed braces, and Charlie was long gone, we chose local orthodontists to straighten their teeth.
The first orthodontist was a lovely guy, and we were very happy with his practice. Sadly, one day, when he was in his 40s, he dropped dead, leaving us bereft and without an orthodontist. We did not realize that the contract we had signed with him indicated that we were obliged to continue treatment if his practice ever was taken over by another orthodontist. Our protests that we would prefer to choose our own practitioner were ignored and we were forced to continue with the replacement orthodontist or lose mountains of money.
When it came time for our fourth child, our son, to be embraced by braces, we went elsewhere, and signed a contract of course. This meant that we would pay the dentist the full amount, and he would continue treating our son until the job was done. It’s a standard arrangement, seemingly protecting both parties.
Our son was diligent and followed the dentist’s orders religiously. Therefore, one day we were quite surprised to discover a bill for orthodontia from the dentist. We had, by then, fully paid. Without a moment’s waste I phoned him to clarify. He explained that he regarded our son as being non-compliant and would go on charging us on a regular basis.
Oh no you don’t! I requested arbitration. Reluctantly he agreed and a date was set.
I arrived on the designated day, alone, to the fragrance of chicken soup wafting from the office. What in the world?
He had convened a group to arbitrate. All of them were his colleagues and friends. I knew none of them. Nor was I even invited to partake in the delicious aromas of the distracting, homemade, undoubtedly kosher soup. He was fighting a legal battle with obviously prejudicial chicken soup. Could this be fair? Emphatically not.
I realized then that I would have no chance to win the dispute. Nonetheless, I plowed on with my argument and my contract.
To this day, I cannot believe my victory. His panel of experts sided with my argument that the contract was unambiguous. The treatment had been paid for and new charges could not be imposed, chicken soup notwithstanding.
But have you noticed these days that everyone has straight teeth? I sometimes note with appropriate dismay that characters in movies or on TV who are portraying impoverished people, dressed in rags, living in hovels, are blessed with permanently straight and usually brilliant white teeth. It’s incongruous for sure. The same is true with historical figures. Each of them is similarly blessed with straight white teeth. Too much perfection, I guess. Maybe there’s a market for actors with crooked teeth after all!
I can be reached by email at [email protected]
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!