My childhood dentist, John Martielli, had an office above a five-and-a-dime — or was it a grocery? — in the Woodlawn section of Baltimore. We went twice a year. I climbed the staircase, hoping against hope I wouldn’t have cavities. Over the course of my childhood, I must have had six-eight and each one left me with the feeling that I had been stamped UNCLEAN. (My sister seldom had cavities.) There was always a debate about who got to go first; we Lippmans were big believers in getting unpleasant things out of the way. If I went second, I whiled away the hours with Highlights — Goofus and Gallant, find the hidden objects. Does Highlights have any purpose other than being in doctors’ and dentists’ offices? Are there newsstand copies of Highlights?
If the worst happened and I had a cavity, there was no Novocaine or painkiller. I don’t remember there being any pain, either. I simply hated the whine of the drill. Cavities were filled with a silver compound, pressed into the tooth with this cunning little device that reminds me of what baristas use for espresso. No eating for an hour, but our post-dentist reward was a trip to the bakery around the corner, the divine Bauhoff’s, home to the best chocolate drop and chocolate chip cookies, not to mention pink-and-white refrigerator cookies and cherry drop cookies. It was almost worth going to the dentist to get those cookies, even if you .
It turned out to be my destiny to have a lot of dental adventures. Poor and without dental insurance in Waco, Texas, I chose a dentist to remove my wisdom teeth based on price — $40 a pop, Novocaine only, spread over three visits. I believe it was the second visit, when the dentist was wrestling with one of the teeth — blood spattering everywhere in those pre-HIV conscious days, the tooth resolutely not budging, the dentist muttering “This is so much harder than it looked” — that I began to doubt the wisdom of this approach to medical care. On the third visit, I burst into tears and they gave me a little gas out of pity.
In San Antonio, I had an excellent dentist, which I needed after knocking out three teeth in a bike accident. Back in Baltimore, I returned to my childhood dentist. He, I figured, had no reason to denigrate his own work; he would replace fillings only as needed.
Dr. Martielli took care of my teeth off and on for almost 35 years. He died in a freak accident a few years back, trimming trees in his yard. A few months later, I spit out two of my back teeth, cracked from gritting. (Oh, that was a proud moment at work, holding my teeth in my palm, calling to my boss: “Look, Harry — I spit my teeth out.” He was pretty grossed out and, in Harry’s defense, he was not the boss who had caused me to grind my teeth.) This led to crowns, which led to an infection, which led to root canal, which led to a surgery I can neither spell nor pronounce but felt like being punched in the jaw and gum repeatedly for two hours, which led to a nice little stash of Percoset that I’ve held in reserve for almost three years now. Then I found yet another new dentist, who informed me that all of Dr. Martielli’s silver fillings had outlived their usefulness and needed to be replaced.
I spread the work over the past year. It was finished this week. Aesthetically, medically, I know the new fillings are better. But I feel a twinge of sorrow, losing that final connection to Dr. Martielli, who took such good care of my teeth over the years.
What were the rituals of your doctor/dentist visits? What did you dread, what did you love? And can you top the idiocy of a 29-year-old woman who, upon falling from her bike, decided she didn’t want to break her arm so she wasn’t going to bring it up to shield her face? Yes, that explains the scar on my upper lip for those of you too polite to mention it.