Essay: Brace Yourself

Jun 20, 2018

Adolescence can really just suck. From the acne to the ACTs, it’s fair to say that most of us are happy to leave those days behind us.

But Lake Effect essayist Marnie Mamminga found herself returning to one such, teenage experience when she decided to get braces at the age of 65:

Like a pair of Cheshire cats, we grinned at each other.

Free at last from an assortment of instruments probing our mouths, the two of us simultaneously popped up from the clutching confines of our reclined orthodontic chairs and smiled our first smile with braces.

Hers were attention grabbing hot pink. Mine were attempted camouflaged tones of white and silver.  Pert and pretty, she looked to be about 13.  Gray and grateful, I was 65.

Regardless, we high fived each other.

“Done!” I said.  “Love the pink.”

“Thanks!” she beamed back, surprised no doubt, to be facing a grandmother of six with braces on her teeth.

But not as surprised as I was the minute the euphoria subsided.  What had I just done?

For a moment, time stood still, and I remembered being a young teenager just like her. The year was 1965.

“Fangs,” my boyfriend had called my teeth. (I married him anyway.)

But he was right.  I begged my father to get my teeth straightened, no easy task in a family of seven struggling to make ends meet. Nevertheless, true to his nature, he scrimped and saved and worked out a payment plan with the orthodontist.  The end result was a smile that lasted 50 years.

Lo these many years later, however, my teeth decided to regain their youth and marched right back to their teenage positions.  The fangs came back with a vengeance and them some.

And the worst of it was, I didn’t want to smile anymore.

“Am I too old to get my teeth straightened?” I asked my dentist at my next visit. “Too vain?”

“I don’t think so,” he smiled kindly.  “I’ll refer you to an orthodontist for a consultation.”

But I hemmed and hawed for over a year too nervous and doubtful to even call for an appointment.   In that time period, however, my teeth only got worse. When I looked at my photos from my niece’s wedding, I cringed.

It didn’t take long to pick up the phone and made an appointment.

“Too old and vain?” I asked the orthodontist after a series of x-rays and exams.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Sixty-five.  And I had braces before at fifteen.”

“Look here,” he answered showing me his bottom teeth lined with metal wire. “I’m sixty-six, so that makes me older and vainer than you.”

I signed on the spot. Some folks go for face-lifts, I opted for braces.

And yet, as I exited my orthodontic chair that morning, I wasn’t so sure. My teeth ached and felt like they were wearing a cage, and in a way they were. This for the next fourteen months?

Fifty years ago, my braces were heavy metal affairs that resembled Frankenstein hardware. Now, at least they were slimmer and lighter and not as throbbing as in my youth when I would lie awake at night unable to sleep from the pain after a bracket tightening.

Nevertheless, my new braces took some getting used to: smaller bites of food, brushing and flossing constantly, avoiding nuts and spinach and anything else that had a tendency to coat my wires like a salad. It also took a while to learn not to spit every time I spoke.

You would have thought I’d loose some weight. Nada.

Perhaps harder than those adjustments were the surprised looks I got every time I came face to face with friends and acquaintances for the first time.

Although I was embarrassed, those I greeted were not.

“I’ve thought about doing that myself,” said more than one adult.

“I got braces when I was fifty, ” confided a doctor.

“My lowers were straightened at age 73,” beamed a retired science teacher.

Surprisingly, I was not alone in my quest for a better senior citizen smile. I just hoped I didn’t die with these brackets on and would live long enough for my investment to pay off.

Of course, by the time I finally decided to get braces, events of a lifetime sprang up on the calendar like a dragonfly hatch.  And so, as the photos will attest, I celebrated my 45th wedding anniversary, my husband’s 50 high school reunion, our son’s wedding, my brother’s wedding, and as an author, a batch of public speaking engagements all with braces gleaming.  And yet, if I’d waited for the perfect moment, I never would have done it.

Finally, only three more months are left, and this now 66-year-old is grinning from ear to ear.   For despite my reservations, the time flew, the orthodontic staff was consistently gentle and encouraging, and ironically, I’ve turned out to be a walking advertisement for senior citizens wanting to explore their own orthodontic options.

But best of all, my teeth are almost straight. And for that, I feel as giddy as the tooth fairy on a midnight haul.

I might not be fifteen again, but I’m smiling as though I were.

Lake Effect essayist Marnie Mamminga is the author of several books, including Return to Wake Robin and On a Clear Night.