Smiling Through — A selection from Bronx Ballads
My Dad was in his mid-forties when he suffered some mysterious illness. Normally a husky and robust man, he became achy and tired and began to lose weight. He went from one specialist to another until Doc Smellin, our long-time family doctor, suggested he see a dentist. It turned out Dad’s teeth were the problem, and they all had to come out. Dad, a handsome man though not polished, never complained about the loss of his teeth. But he did complain about his dentures, which my cousin Dunny, the dentist in Brooklyn, had made for him. Cousin Dunny’s had been a captain in the army and Dad wondered how soldiers treated by a dentist like him could ever have won the war. But the price was right, so Dad travelled to Brooklyn. Eventually he got used to the dentures but never missed a chance to drop them into a glass of water on his bedside table while reading his shoot-em-up western magazines. Pop would buy the glossy magazines for a dime and spend part of Sunday toothlessly devouring them. The cover usually had a picture of a blonde in a red dress in the foreground, bound and gagged, with some threat imminent — railroad train, open mine shaft, cattle stampede – and in the background a rider on a rearing white stallion arriving just in time to save her. But Pop never read his westerns until he had finished the Real Estate section of the Sunday New York Times. He never bothered reading the rest of the paper, but avidly turned to the “country properties” section. Dad wanted to buy a farm in the country, but Mom had no intention of leaving her brothers and twin sister behind in the Bronx. Dad would find a particularly juicy advertisement and read it aloud. We kids ooohed and aahed and got excited. Mom got silent. “Listen to this one,” he’d say, “22 acres, 4 bedrooms, needs work, outbuildings, chickens, stream running through, fruit trees, $3000.” His voice was honeyed with desire, his eyes shiny, and we kids were his co-conspirators. We’d listen as he read another ad and agree that living on a farm would be much better than living in a tenement in the Bronx. He thought of himself as a natural handyman, and the challenge of taking a run-down farm and making it live inflamed him. Mom would say, “Fine. You go and take the kids — the twins and the older boys will love it. Dad put aside his westerns and the Times some Sundays because we headed up to Grandpa’s house on the Hudson or, sometimes in the summer, to Montauk My Dad would get us up at 6 AM and we’d drive over to the German bakery on Webster Avenue and buy two dozen rolls. Then we’d stop at the delicatessen and buy a couple of pounds of salami and bologna. The clerk would fill the little cardboard containers with the golden mustard — containers like the kind you got with take-out food from Chinese restaurants. Then we’d go back to the apartment where my Dad, my Mom and I made sandwiches. My Dad would slice the fragrant, warm rolls and Mom and I would slather mustard on, plunk down the cold cuts and wrap the sandwiches in waxed paper. It was an all-day outing and we figured the two dozen sandwiches would hold the six of us till we had supper. So with our bags and blankets and bathing suits, we’d pile into the car. Since we left the house by eight o’clock, there was little traffic on the parkways, so were soon headed for the beach, where we would run eagerly into the surf. Getting in was hard because the water felt so cold, but once wet, it was exhilarating. My older brothers would wander into town and flirt with girls. But my twin, Dad and I frolicked in the surf. My Dad encouraged us to be brave and he showed us how to dive into an oncoming wave at just the right moment so we’d slice through the water and not get caught up when the wave broke and crashed on shore. It was tricky business but Ted and I finally got the hang of it — my Dad laughing and rollicking with us. We’d dive into the wave and reappear laughing and smiling, bobbing up like corks to the surface. Dad cheered us on, and we’d alert each other to an oncoming wave that was especially big. “Hey, look at that one coming,” Pop shouted, and we dove in. We were all caught and tumbled and when I staggered up Pop was smiling — but without his teeth. His upper dentures had been knocked out of his mouth when he too had been churned by the monster wave. We tried diving and searching for his uppers, but the surf pounded, the waves rolled, and of course we couldn’t find them. When we three approached the blanket, dripping wet and excited, my mother, who had settled in at the beach, looked up in surprise. When we told her what had happened, she just laughed. My Dad laughed a lot too — toothlessly of course, and thought it a great joke. When my mother reminded him of the additional expense for new uppers, my father stopped laughing. Probably the thought of traveling to Brooklyn, to my supercilious cousin Dunny-the-Dentist, dulled the joke for him. My mother, a stocky woman, pushed up out of her canvas chair and went to the water’s edge. Slowly she waded into the water, stopping when it was up to her knees. She leaned over and scooped up palms-full of water, dumping it into the front of her one-piece bathing suit shrieking, “Mecheich!” — a pleasure — enjoying the cold water as it disappeared down her ample bosom, but she never dared go further out to sea. We three tried diving again to look for his teeth, but we were half-hearted and unenthusiastic. Later that evening, we stopped for supper at my aunt and uncle’s in Rockaway, and my cousins teased Pop about the loss, wondering what cousin Dunny would say to chastise Pop. Then we all piled into the car sleepy, sunburned and refreshed from our day at the beach, laughing occasionally about Pop’s calamity. About two weeks later, Pop got a call from Cousin Rhoda. One of the women who had heard the story of Pop’s teeth at one of Rhoda’s Mah Jong game, amidst squeals of laughter, had been strolling on the beach in Montauk with her husband. They had stopped and were sitting on a bench facing the Atlantic. They began to talk to a widow who was sitting there enjoying the sea breeze when, inexplicably, Rhoda’s Mah Jong partner mentioned Pop’s teeth. The widow gave a little squeal and said that she had seen a notice tacked up: “Found, top dentures — please call.” A phone number was listed. So Rhoda’s friend copied down the number, marveling at the coincidence, and called Rhoda, who immediately phoned Dad. Rhoda, a schoolteacher, cautioned, “Now don’t get your hopes up, Uncle Al, they may not be yours. After all, I’m sure you’re not the only one this has happened to.” So that Sunday we piled into the car and headed out to meet Mrs. Fisher, who had found the teeth. She held the upper plate in a napkin and showed it to Dad. “Are these yours?” she asked in Yiddish. Pop couldn’t tell — there was one tooth broken off on the right side, but there were no identifying marks — one didn’t get monogrammed dentures, even if your dentist was a former Captain of the U.S. Army. Dad took the dentures in his hand and studied them carefully — then as inspiration struck, he laughed and said there was really only one way to tell for sure. He popped the uppers into his mouth, waggled them around with his tongue, while pretty Mrs. Fisher watched open-mouthed. Then he gave Mrs. Fisher and Mom a toothsome smile and exclaimed, “These are mine!” Dad clacked his dentures for further emphasis, then laughed. Waxing philosophic, he commented on how the sea, like life, giveth or taketh away — or vice versa, as the case may be. He thanked Mrs. Fisher, flirting with her a little now that he had his teeth back in. Then he and Mom walked back into the bright sunshine and tangy air. Mom wanted to stop on the way back at Yonah Shimmel’s knish stand in Rockaway for a potato knish, but Dad held out for the next food concession, where they sold corn-on-the-cob, intent on reacquainting himself once again with the dexterity of cousin Dunny’s dentures.