WHY HURT, LITTLE TOOTH? By Corinne Copnick*
I’m going to tell you a story – a true story about my father who was a Montreal dentist. I first told this story at a storytelling session, where one creative artist after another got up and told a story. We made them up. To relax. For fun. Because, after two days of workshopping, it was a time for sharing. But just before dawn, the morning after I had told my story, I wrote it down. Because I’m a writer, and I wanted to retell this story… many times…just the way I remembered what happened. And now I want to tell it to you.
At the storytelling session, just before I told my own story, a young student was telling a story about chickens, and the story preceding her story concerned the financially hard times we were experiencing in Canada in the nineties. But only half of my mind listened to the student’s tales. I was spinning my own reverie, the other part of my mind taking me back to the 1930s, to the “real” depression years. I was thinking about hard times, about chickens…about my father. He had recently passed away. The chickens I was remembering were the ones my father got in return for fillings in the jobless thirties. Then people said, “Are you working?” instead of “Hello, how are you?” If you were working, you were obviously all right.
In that very real depression in 1936, the year I was born, my father was accepting not only chickens, but their offspring, eggs. He would receive a wide assortment of other small items (usually grown in people’s back yards) bartered in return for dental work. His impoverished clients could not otherwise pay. My father had been providing food for his own little family in this way since 1933, the year he graduated in dentistry from McGill University. My father, the son of a junk peddler, was the only one of eight children to make it to university. This he did by dint of several scholarships and also by holding three jobs at the same time. He peeled potatoes at the amusement park (late night shift), worked as a longshoreman on the docks (summer), and served as a guide on a Montreal tour bus (weekends).
What I remember most about my father was his compassion. Quite simply, he cared about his patients. He was the kind of dentist who brought morning tea and toast to a disabled patient he was worried about. Once I saw him give back money to a black woman who paid him in handkerchief-wrapped dimes and quarters. “You’ll pay me when you have a little more money,” he said softly. And when his patients didn’t have any, they could bring some bread or home-baked cake or garden peas – or a chicken.We ate a lot of chicken.
In those old fashioned, caring, depression days, my father’s office was in our home. In 1939, just before he voluntarily joined the army and went to war, I was just a little girl, but I remember playing with toys in father’s waiting room. I remember watching the stream of dental patients come with food and go out with fillings.I remember the incredulous screams of joy that came from his office late one afternoon. My mother came running, and, for a long while after that, I heard sounds that, even to my little girl’s ears that didn’t know yet about miracles, signaled that something momentous was taking place here, in my father’s office.As I peeked in the doorway, I could see that an elderly woman who had come with a chicken was sitting in the dental chair. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and they were also making joyful pathways down the face of the sister who stood, clutching her hand, beside her.
My father also stood, transfixed, his voice husky with emotion as he asked the elderly woman questions pertinent to this moment none of them would ever forget. “You can see?” he asked in a hushed tone.
“I can see, I can see,” the woman smiled through her tears. “Oh, dear God, I can see!”
Her sister had brought her to my father’s dental office because she had been suffering from an agonizing toothache. To go to a dentist cost money she couldn’t afford, and she had waited and waited until she couldn’t bear the pain any more. How could one little tooth hurt so much?
Finally, she came to my father. A kind man who would accept whatever she could spare, people said, and so she came with her little offering of food. She walked in, guided by her sister, because the elderly lady was blind. She had been unable to see anything, not anything at all, for several years.
As my father tried to alleviate this terrible ache with his dental arts, as he extracted the rotted, blackened tooth that poverty had kept in the old lady’s mouth, she began to shriek her joyful disbelief. The tooth had been pressing on an optic nerve. For all of the several years the woman had been unable to see.
In my father’s dental chair, as the tooth was removed, as the pressure on the nerve was taken away, she began to see. Oh, not all at once! At first, she could only see shadowy glimpses, floating by in black and white. But in the days before color and clarity once again began to fill her world, she could see images – beautiful, long-lost images. She could see the shape of things to come. She could see that the world was a wondrous place where miracles can happen. And that there were people like my father in it.
It was not long after this incident that my father began to feed his family (now there was my sister) with a monthly check from the army. And in the newsletter printed by the Canadian army in Canada, and also in England where my father was stationed during World War II, a poem written by him appeared.The poem was called, “Why hurt, little tooth?” It didn’t mention the elderly lady. It didn’t mention the miracle. I was only a little girl, but even I knew that the little tooth didn’t hurt any more.* * * *
(copyright, Los Angeles, 2008. All rights reserved. Full story will be included in Tales of Laughter and Inspiration, by Corinne Copnick, work in progress. Interested literary agents or publishers may apply!)