Kevin O'Hara: Keep on smiling

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This past March, when COVID-19 began to rattle our world, a neighbor's young son, seeing me wearing a facemask, innocently inquired, "What happened to you, Mr. O'Hara, you lose your front teeth or something?"

I laughed at his question, but his comment brought to mind the darkest days of my childhood.

I was born with a small mouth — physically speaking, that is — thus a cluster of crowded teeth soon became an issue. In response, my father took me to a local dentist who extracted my top lateral incisor — the square one beside my big front tooth — to make room for the unruly gang behind it. In a short time, a saber-like canine filled the missing incisor's gap, transforming me into an 11-year old Count Dracula.

Seeing the dentist's shoddy results, my father took me to Dr. Ferris, a highly-respected oral surgeon on South Street, who blew a fuse when he saw his colleague's botched handiwork. He explained that his peer should never have pulled my permanent incisor, but my primary premolars instead. The consequence of his actions would leave me with an irregular smile for life.

Before we left his office, Dr. Ferris administered a foul-smelling gas to put me to sleep, a suffocating ether that sent me on an ever-descending vortex toward Hades. When I awoke from my nightmarish journey, seven bloodied milk teeth were strewn across a stainless steel tray before me.

My vampire smile often made me blue, but my parents would cheer me up with "tooth stories," that were far worse than my own. For instance, my mom told me about Gummy, a man from her Irish village, who never sprouted a single tooth from cradle to grave. Dad, in turn, mentioned an RAF airman in England who grew a third set of teeth, and lost those! At least my snaggleteeth could bite into a crisp Northern Spy, they reminded me, or lay waste to a buttery ear of Kinderhook corn.

There were two options to fix my grim Brothers Grimm grin. First, braces, but they were so far out of my family's economic reach that I had a better chance of being chosen for a Colgate commercial. Besides, back in the 1950s, rich kids with braces looked like they had Erector sets built inside their gobs — bands, pulleys, and all. One spoiled kid at our school boasted of being able to pick up music on AM radio with his "metal mouth." Even so, no one wanted to sit across from him at lunch while he ate his inch-high fluffernutter sandwich.

False teeth were the second option, albeit a bit dramatic at my tender age. Fortunately, this notion quickly evaporated when an encyclopedia salesman came to our door, sporting choppers better suited for a donkey. I figured he'd either bought them at a pawn shop, or they were handed to him by a funeral director before closing the casket on a friend. When he left our house following his A to Z click-clacking pitch, I was determined to do three things: play dominos, take up the piano, and learn the art of scrimshaw.

It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I asked my longtime friend and dentist, Dr. Francis McCarthy, if he could chisel the nib off my errant eyetooth to make it look more like my long-lost incisor. In a matter of minutes, my skilled friend handed me a mirror. "Gee, Frank," I gasped, "I should've done this years ago."

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Frank replied, "Glad to be of help. Now, remember, keep on smiling."

These days, with friends and strangers alike covering their faces, I miss their hidden smiles, whether beaming, dimpling, or even toothless. It's easy to forget the importance of a grin during these troubling, mask-wearing times, so I leave you with an excerpt from a verse by an anonymous poet — a wise old sage who certainly knew the value of a simple smile.

The face of man was built for smiles,

An' thereby he is blest

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Above the critters of the field,

The birds an' all the rest;

He's just a little lower

Than the angels in the skies,

An' the reason is that he can smile;

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Therein his glory lies!

So smile an' don't forget to smile,

An' smile, an' smile ag'in

'Twill help you all along the way,

An' cheer you mile by mile;

An' so, whatever is your lot,

Jes' smile, an' smile, an' smile.

Kevin O'Hara is a longtime Eagle contributor. Visit his website at www.thedonkeyman.com.


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