Ancient History

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Facing the Bracing

Like most children of the 70s and 80s, my siblings and I had a subscription to Highlights for Children. It’s quite possible my mom still gets it because unsubscribing from Highlights would be like punching Mr. Rogers. It’s untouchable wholesomeness is unparalleled. Even the most hardened criminal in the state pen knows it’s better to be Gallant than Goofus. I wonder if moms of that era felt intense pressure to subscribe as a Good Mom thing? Nothing changes.

One particular Highlights issue stood above all the others. I know it was October. I can’t remember if it was 1980 or 1981. I read it over and over again because of a story that terrified me. Usually, Highlights stories are about how kids band together to help Grandpa clean up the park as he tells them about Flag Day. This story was different.

The heroine’s name was Penelope. I read it as “Pen-lope” though, so there was a period of my life when I thought about naming my future baby girl Penlope. You are welcome, Aidan and Beatrix. Penelope’s saga gripped me because I had the crookedest teeth this side of the North Pole. My upper teeth came in behind my baby teeth, so when I lost them my bite was completely jacked up. I had teeth coming in sideways. I had one buried under bone. It was as if someone told me to open my mouth, then they shook up a box and poured teeth in. Where they landed was what I had to work with. Braces were in my future and the idea made my blood run cold.

They looked painful, like bear traps fashioned out of barbed wire. Teenaged babysitters and older siblings of friends made them sound like pure hell on earth. Why would anyone willingly spring-load a tender pink mouth? Crooked teeth had character. Laura Ingalls probably had crooked teeth, and if it was good enough for her, it should be good enough for all.

Penelope had terrible teeth, too. Her story was about the day she got braces. It went well, but her mouth was sore after. So very sore! She had pointy bits of wire she had to put wax on to stop the pain. She couldn’t eat normal foods. Her parents sold her little brother to pay for them. That part may not have happened, but the rest of the story gripped me. I read it over and over, trying to pull some kind of hope, determination, or information out of a two-page story, with illustrations.

I was only about ten when I read the story. By the time I got my braces—at age fourteen—I was much less afraid and much more vain. I always remembered Penelope and her braces, though.

Yesterday, Joel, our ten-year-old, got braces. Poor guy is the apple to my tree and he fell close enough for me to pick it up and hurl it at Dorothy. He didn’t have Penelope to guide him. When asked how he felt about them, he’d say, “Nervous-cited!” Nervous and excited! He only has them on the top, for now, to correct his own crazy bite issues.

Like Penelope, me, and everyone who has ever had braces, he’s in pain today. I dosed him with some ibuprofen before school and hope it’s lasting the day for him. He has a little red box of wax. He’s eating softer foods. He still has all of his little brothers.

But most of all, he was brave. My ten-year-old stacked up against ten-year-old me was much more composed and assured about this milestone. I was and am impressed by his ability to take it all in stride.

I’m pretty sure he’s Gallant.


2 comments to Facing the Bracing

  • Mom

    Joel is very brave and I’m glad he could take it in stride. He was blessed not to read “Pen Lope’s” story. I never knew you had such anxiety over braces, though I did know you didn’t like showing me your teeth so I could see if you had loose ones. Isn’t it fun being the parent? Lol!

  • When I was a child everyone got braces — everyone! My teeth were actually pretty good. I don’t remember a thing wrong with them, but I got ’em all the same.

    I wonder how today’s kids would react to Highlights? Are they too cynical to love it like we did? Or would they embrace it, no questions asked?

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