Dentists and Dunners

Turn your attention to the Norman Rockwell print above and note the boy’s apprehensive expression as he gazes off into the corner of the frame. You might think he would be observing the dentist, possibly wielding a drill or some other fearful instrument, but if this scene were set in my grandfather’s clinic (he was the local dentist in Melbourne) such would not be the case. The boy would be cowering in fear before my grandmother, who was the practice’s secret weapon when dealing with recalcitrant children. She used to come out from behind the receptionist’s desk and terrorize them into submission, thereby allowing her more amiable husband to go about his business unimpeded.

Of course, quelling out-of-line children was small potatoes for someone with Nanna’s formidable personality. Fortunately, the office offered her much greater scope for her talents. When she first came to work in the office full time, her husband was in desperate need of a dunner.

The problem was that my grandfather was a mild-mannered fellow, amply supplied with the milk of human kindness, and when a patient neglected to pay his bill he usually mailed off a few reminders and then let the matter drop. On her arrival, therefore, Nanna discovered a drawer full of these unpaid bills and took it upon herself to pursue justice. She hunted down defaulters all over town, hounding them until they paid up. If they resisted, she dragged them to small claims court and extracted every cent she was due. (Nanna has never tried to get more than a thank-you note out of me, but even so the experience left me shaken. I can only imagine the impression she made on the debt-dodging residents of Melbourne.)

My mother, who was in business school at the time, came home for a visit to find Nanna struggling with the bookkeeping and complaining that it was impossible to make the numbers balance. It turned out that she had collected on so many bills long ago written off as hopeless that the debts to be collected on added up to a negative number. Mom assured her that this was an enviable situation rather than a problem and told her not to worry about it.


My dental heritage and Nanna’s unique sense of style caused me to grow up with an aesthetic blind spot that it took me years to identify and expunge.

When I was in high school my AP English teacher prepared us for the exam by giving us practice tests in which we had to read excerpts from literature and analyze them. There was one that described a dentist named McTeague, a brawny, stolid sort of fellow who made a living pulling bad teeth out of factory workers in a poor neighborhood. The passage concluded with a description of McTeague’s greatest ambition: to replace the humdrum sign that advertised “McTeague. Dental Parlors” with a huge gilded model of a molar that he could mount outside the door.

I was supposed to be divining the author’s attitude toward McTeague, and when I got my essay back I was surprised to see that I had been marked down for failing to note the “irony and humor” of the passage. I asked my teacher to explain and she told me that the best example of those qualities was McTeague’s desire for the gilded molar, which indicated his hopelessly plebian tastes and laughably skewed notions of sophistication.

This was troubling. I had thought I was pretty good at spotting irony, and yet this time it had escaped me completely. I studied the passage once more: “It was his ambition, his dream, to have projecting from the window a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.”

Nope, I thought, no irony there. This seemed to me an entirely reasonable and tasteful adornment for a dentist’s office, and I was at a loss to understand why my teacher persisted in describing it as “tacky”. It was an enigma that defied comprehension, and I put it out of my mind.

Several years later we were moving my grandmother into a nursing home and laboring to sort through her belongings and empty the house (a task that had many family members thinking longingly of arson), and Mom asked my sister and me if there was anything we particularly wanted.

“Nanna’s tooth necklace!” said my sister promptly.

“Really?” asked my mom, in the same dubious tones that my AP English teacher had used when I sided with McTeague.

And just like that, the scales fell from my eyes and I grasped that which had eluded me since high school. The problem, I realized, was that I had been subtly conditioned from an early age to believe that decorating with teeth was a normal and tasteful thing to do (it isn’t).

As a nod to her husband’s profession, Nanna had amassed a sizeable collection of dental décor. Her house was strewn with models of teeth and framed pictures like the one above, and if I remember correctly there were also some lovely cross-stitched bicuspids sewn by my aunt.

The necklace that my sister so ardently desired was the jewel of this collection. It had been a gift from my grandfather, who made it himself by sculpting a larger-than-life molar, roots and all, and casting it with the same gold he used for fillings. Nanna used to wear it on a long gold chain.

It is a unique piece of jewelry and undeniably possessed of significant intrinsic and sentimental value (not to mention being an excellent conversation piece), but when I considered it objectively I had to admit that “tacky” was the mot juste. I imagined a larger version protruding above McTeague’s door and at long last conceded the irony.



P.S. For those of you who have been raising your eyebrows at the increasing infrequency of my posts, know that my problems are twofold. First, my grandmother has unfortunately entered that final and most unpleasant stage of old age where the mind and personality atrophy, and there’s no humor in it at all.* Hence the past-oriented nature of recent posts. Second, I’m just starting a year abroad and am therefore somewhat out of touch with the family gossip. So I’ll try to post occasionally, but don’t hold your breath!


*Ok, not entirely true; there is always humor. A few weeks ago my sister was home and we were talking with Mom and someone mentioned a family friend we had encountered recently.

“Wasn’t Nanna trying to get you to marry Rachel’s son at one point?” Mom asked my sister.

She had been. The son is question was just my sister’s age and stood to inherit a considerable sum of money, and Nanna therefore considered it an ideal match. My sister explained this, and Mom nodded reminiscently and said, “She always used to say, ‘if you’re going to fall in love with someone you might as well fall in love with someone who has money.’”

My sister and I exchanged glances; this sounded uncharacteristically sentimental of our grandmother. “She must have become more practical in her old age,” my sister said. “What she told me was, ‘For enough money, you can fall in love with anyone.’”

At this, Mom choked up and got a little teary-eyed. “I’m so glad you had the chance to know her!”


4 thoughts on “Dentists and Dunners

  1. Karen Pass

    Katy, this is one of my favorite stories you have written about Niecie. I remember well her going to small claims court. She also had friends at The Peoples Bank who would tell her that someone’s check was now good. She would run to the bank to cash those checks! How do I get in touch with you now that you are in England?

    Aunt Sharon!


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