What can rotting teeth reveal about the experience of growing up with generational trauma? It turns out, quite a lot. Tali Perch’s deeply personal essay about her childhood, family, and relationship to pain is organized around a series of dental appointments:
Mama called a Russian friend to find a cheaper dentist. The friend had recommended “Uri” mostly because he worked where he lived: he didn’t have to pay rent twice and could pass those savings on to his customers. “Smart businessman,” Papa said.
Dr. Uri buzzed us in and opened the door to his apartment. “Come in, come in,” he said, using the formal Russian you and smiling through small, stubby, very white teeth. He was a stocky older man with a helmet of coarse salt-and-pepper hair and matching bushy eyebrows. His apartment was empty and felt as cold as a meat locker; the kitchen had been converted into a treatment room, no cookware in sight. He motioned for me to sit in a dental chair next to his stove. Mama stood in the corner.
Dr. Uri rooted around in my mouth. “The lower left molar is decayed,” he told Mama in Russian, whose word for “molar” roughly translates to critical tooth. Or drastic tooth. Or native tooth. A tooth to preserve, to repair. Or, if too wounded, then a tooth to cajole slowly, gently, carefully by its root, leaving the gums and nerves healthy for a stronger tooth to grow there. But to Dr. Uri, my molar was merely a baby tooth. “Not worth fixing.” He yanked the tooth quickly, with no novocaine, as if he had only seconds to extricate the tooth or the decay would live there forever.