My grandma wore dentures, and she was Norwegian. I don’t know what being Norwegian had to do with Grandma‘s dentures, but in my 11-year old mind, the two must have had something to do with one another. She talked funny (she called me “Yanet”, not Janet), and she clicked when she talked. I had never known anyone who clicked when they talked. And every once in a while she did this amazing thing with her tongue, where she moved her top teeth up and down. That, I was sure, also had something to do with being a Norwegian. I would sit, fascinated for hours, and watch her talk. Sometimes I’d even just sit around the corner and listen.
Grandma was not a small woman. She was very tall. When she walked, I imagined her having a saddle between her legs, way up there under those ankle-length skirts; her gait was a lumbering, rounded, slow-motion hurdle. Even when she sat, her legs didn’t seem to come together. Mom said it was because of all those kids she’d had, but I quietly suspected that all Norwegians had legs like that. I remember wondering if the dentures and the clicking could possibly have anything to do with her legs not coming together, but I certainly wasn’t going to ask: this was a very private Norwegian woman living in rural South Dakota, who, at 40-something, found herself in the family way with the last of the litter, and she’d hidden in her house for the entire pregnancy. Mom told me she was embarrassed that the neighbors would think she’d been “doing what married couples do” if they saw that she was pregnant. Where else would the neighbors think my uncle came from?
Grandma was not a shy woman. Grandma was a bold woman: at 18 years of age, she sailed from Norway to New York, and this without any male or family escort. I imagined that she’d hidden out for most of that journey, as well, because it was beyond inappropriate for a young, single woman to be gallivanting around the world like that: What would people think? But she was consistent about things like that. She did not believe in airing one’s dirty (or even clean) laundry in public. Grandma would have liked the rule about locking up the president’s papers and keeping them that way for 50 years before allowing the public’s eyes to scrutinize them. Fifty years have now passed since The Incident. Grandma, rest her soul, is gone. And this is where I begin the end of the story of Grandma’s dentures.
Dickie (he’s been upgraded to “Dick”). My baby brother. Curious little guy. Always was, still is, except a little bigger now. Grandma, with the dentures, was visiting us for the summer. Dickie, being his curious self, sat on the floor outside of the bathroom, ear pressed to the door.
“Graaaaand Maaaaaaa! I gotta go, Graaaaand Maaaaaaa!” Dickie sounded desperate, and I snickered into my hand.
I was sitting in the coat closet, peering out at the scene unfolding in front of me. I felt safe, and a chill went through my skinny body. It was that wonderful thrill of doing something that’s border-line breaking the rules, but I couldn’t help myself: I sensed something luscious was about to happen.
The bathroom door opened, the fan switched on, and Grandma marched past Dickie and the hidden me, without a nod or a word. I stifled a snicker into my hand, almost giving myself away. Dickie glanced momentarily in my direction, apparently satisfying himself that he was alone, and stepped into the bathroom. He didn’t bother closing the door, because he was, he thought, alone.
Dickie sat on the toilet, partially hidden from my view by the sink and the stand-alone counter. I could see his jeans crumpled at his ankles, his bare toes, and his curly-top hair. He seemed to be in full concentration, as he stared ahead at the shower stall directly in front of him. I heard a groan, then another, followed by an explosion of gas that seemed far too great for a 6-year-old boy. I snickered again, then bit my thumb to regain control.
“Cool!!” Dickie blurted loudly. My eyes locked on the direction of his gaze, and I understood: There, for all to see, was Grandma’s Denture Holder. It was overflowing with foam. Which could mean only one thing: Grandma’s dentures were there.
I could hardly contain myself to remain quiet, and the suspense grew even greater when I saw the wicked glint of curiosity spark in Dickie’s eyes. He grabbed at the toilet paper, and managed to rip off a square or two, then proceeded to do his business with the dangerously inadequate, wadded up scrap of paper. I saw it, as he moved his hands forward to pull up his jeans: his hands had done the job toilet paper should have done. And it, apparently, had been no meager job.
Either Dickie’s curiosity got the better of him, or he didn’t notice the lumpy brown substance on his hands. I watched with a mixture of excitement and horror, and maybe just a tad of queasiness when I thought about where those dentures would go next, as he reached across the counter and grabbed Grandma’s dentures from the holder. Though I can’t be certain, I thought I saw a look of panic cross Dickie’s face, as he looked from hands to denture. He threw his arms away from his body, and the dentures went clattering to the floor. At that very moment, Grandma came round the corner, and Dickie slammed closed the bathroom door.
Later that night, Grandma’s dentures got cleaned with a little help from me. I didn’t tell Mom and I didn’t tell Grandma, but I had a good one to hold onto for as long as I needed. Sometimes it’s good to have something like that in your pocket.
©Janet Mitchell, August 2011