The Toothless Smile

A photograph shows us, Alta and me, in a mountain cabin, cuddling together under the covers. Not exactly cuddling since Alta has straightened up to offer her face to the camera. Alta is smiling. She is eight years old. It is difficult to look more radiantly happy. Alta smiles joyfully, showing all her teeth - or rather her “no-teeth”. For this is the subject I want to write about: the fabulous, devastating smile of the toothless. In her open mouth you can see baby teeth, gaps, permanent teeth coming in, and grooved permanent teeth just emerging. Never again will she have a more unaesthetic or more beautiful smile. This photograph moves me to tears. How many times do I say to her in our daily lives, after she has shown them to me, “How I love your teeth!” Alta laughs but doesn’t understand. She certainly feels it’s odd that anyone should value this oral stage to such degree, but she accepts me as I am and understand things that cannot be said. In this smile so ephemeral, so fleeting, there is such fragility, such indifference to seduction, such an offering of the self in its wretched, unfinished state: in a word, such grace. Nothing speaks so perfectly of smallness, of residue, nor of the fugitive nature of things as the implausible brilliance of that jumbled diadem. Only children at this age, dogs, or unrefined old men can offer the world this beneficent abyss.