America's greatest First Daughter, the lovely Chelsea Clinton, graced the bedroom wall of every teenage boy from my generation. She was, to us, a glowing jack-o-lantern of warmth and hope in an uncertain time. Her appeal was not the same as the other starlets of our day with whom the boys were enamored – Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ginger Spice...
all my 35-year-olds, holler if you hear me! Am I right?
While other women over whom we fawned bore an edgy broodiness, Chelsea's beauty was the stark opposite – her beauty lay in her smile, a collection of 32 beacons of light made of calcium.
It was a smile of hope. Pure, unadulterated hope. I myself do not possess such immaculate pearly white pillars as Chelsea Clinton's. A year ago, an accident shattered what was once a fairly well-maintained grill. For a dreary time rank with self-pity, I was quite self-conscious of the fact that my tongue looked like it was in a Chilean prison cell.
When COVID-19 struck our planet, I took solace in wearing a mask.
But, I learned to love my smile. To be proud of it even, going so far as to think of my broken and jagged front row of teeth as one of my most charming features (the other being my avocado shape, evoking images of the Mr. Stay-Puft).
What helped me to learn to cherish this busted grill? An ally who helps us more than we know, a friend we often don't know we have – sorrow.
I grew up in the small town of Starkweather, Nebraska, population: 3,000. I come from a family of what's known as “oil field trash.” Some might see this as a derogatory term, but I don't shy away from it. Though I myself never had the grit to work in the oil fields, my father, uncles, aunts, and grandfather all labored their lives away to draw that crude, black gold from the ground, to put food on our table, and ironically, keep us routinely in the dentist's chair of sadism. Though Dick Cheney and the others who got rich off the precious slime never knew my family's name, I'm proud of my family's work ethic, the calluses on their hands, the bloodshot eyes they wore from copious amounts of marijuana smoked on the derricks (that is, one of those big oil towers you may have seen in There Will Be Blood), puffed to make a long day seem a little shorter.
My family were as crude as the oil which they drew from the depths of the earth. They cursed in the presence of children, they smoked Camel Reds, they wore caps indoors and at church, at funerals, and those caps usually bore some crude double-entendre slogan, like Professional Crop Duster. Their red beards never quite connected with the nicotine-stained mustaches that accented their missing and broken teeth. They wore prominent soul patches beneath their bottom lips. They had boisterous laughs, mad cackles not heard since the scurvy-ridden crew of the Pequod (that is, the ship in the whaling novel Moby Dick).
When I was a kid, I thought they were the coolest people ever, even surpassing my generation's other staples of cool, like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Joe Lieberman.
They regularly took the Lord's name in vain, on both mundane and heartbreaking occasions: when the Cornhuskers lost a game, or when each of them died, one by one, year by year it seemed, consumed by bad hearts, bad lungs, bad habits, or bad reputations. The clean white shirts and bolo ties in which they were buried lent their soul patches and the gunpowder on their lips a strange dignity.
When I became an adult, and my family had faded until the disarrayed teeth in their smiles were obscured behind layers of dust on picture frames, I knew the time had come to leave Starkweather, Nebraska and its population of 3,000 souls, minus those of my kin.
There comes a time when everybody runs away from home, I suppose. Me, I ran to the city. I walked before I could crawl, so to speak. I went from the tiny town of Starkweather to the metropolis of Jezebel, New Mexico, population: 30,000.
Needless to say, I was slack-jawed and gobsmacked, flabbergasted even, at the Gotham that loomed around me. But when I felt overwhelmed by the twenty-story buildings and neon lights of the buffets and even a movie theater, I molded that feeling into a reminder that I was hidden, a drop in a bucket, far away from the grasp of weariness and loss I'd left behind in Nebraska.
There was no way all that sorrow could find me in such a crowded place as Jezebel, I told myself. I shaved my own beard, and my admittedly baby-like face gave no hint as to the men and women I'd loved and lost, who'd faded into thin air. As long as I wasn't reminded of them each day in the mirror, they couldn't hurt me.
All this aesthetic effort was dashed one fateful day in Target.
When I went to Target for the first time, I was rather discombobulated. I'd never been in such a swanky, upscale store. It was Dollar General times ten! I was in awe, being the rube that I was, at this place the Kardashians would surely frequent if they ever came to New Mexico. I wandered through the ominous store, amazed at the glitz and glamor. But before I knew it, I was in the women's undergarment section. The wrong part of town, so to speak.
I snapped out of my trance when I noticed a woman looking at me, warily and suspiciously, as though I were Ted Bundy or some other such panty-thief. Unable to find words to explain what I was doing amid the ladies' underthings, that I'd innocently wandered into Victoria Secret City, I panicked, turned and began to run.
My instinct to run away apparently not only applied to lonesome hometowns.
In doing so, I tripped on my own feet and down I went. Face-first onto the faux marble floor. My nose gushed with blood, and two and a half of my front teeth were obliterated.
When I wasn't toiling away at my job as an inventory clerk at a local tire supplier (fortunately in the back of the building), I was hiding in my apartment, away from the eyes of those who might see my busted grill and shudder. I looked like the love child of Stanley Kubrick and a worm farm proprietor who runs an underground polygamy cult. My COVID mask stayed on not only at work, but at my apartment as well. In my complacency, abandoning any concern for my appearance, I even stopped shaving. What was the point? Razors are expensive, and I looked like a police artist sketch.
Then one day, the ear strap on the mask broke. I was forced to see my own face in the mirror when I went to brush my teeth. I didn't see myself that morning – I saw my family. I saw my father, I saw every one of my uncles. I saw a composite of ghosts with tangled red beards and broken teeth.
It was a shock at first. To see men long dead looking back at me in the mirror. The dam that held back the waters of memory buckled and burst, letting loose a flood of mixed emotions that swept me away (that is, figuratively speaking).
After I recovered from the initial shock, the waters of the metaphorical flood having dried, I felt an odd peace. I suddenly felt like it was okay to remember all those callous and coarse men and women I'd lost. It was more than okay, I realized – it was right. I felt rather ashamed at myself for trying so hard to forget my family for so long, to suppress their sparkling eyes surrounded by dark circles to spare myself a bit of pain.
Pain is an important part of life. Without it, we'd never learn, never be shaped and refined, never rejoice when better days come.
I don't want to forget my family. I've carefully kept the combing and trimming of my beard to a minimum. My soul patch is, dare I say, immaculate. My smile has a rustic charm, and I'm proud of it. If my busted grill is all I have left of my family, I'll cherish it.
My smile is almost as beautiful as Chelsea Clinton's. It would be pretentious to say just as beautiful, but I'm confident I'm almost in the same league. My smile is not as enlightened, not as classy or pearly. But the smile in the mirror gives me just as much hope as the smile that radiated from the poster on my wall all those years ago.
“Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better.” –Ecclesiastes 7:3