-This is a true story, based upon a child’s memory. So, people and places are likely a bit different than actual events. However, ones thing is not changed. My Papaw is an amazing man!
I had a loose tooth again. I rather enjoyed having loose teeth. It was quite satisfying to wiggle the tooth back and forth, back and forth, with the tip of my tongue, loosening the roots’ grip more and more from its hold within the gums, allowing room for the adult tooth to push through to its position of permanence. And while I felt this process meritorious I held great trepidation for the procedures adults often employed to remove that tooth from its current status within my mouth.
For years now, the adults in my family had tied thread around the wobbly ivories in their desire to dislodge the offending and dying piece of calcium from its residence. Mama, Daddy, Nunu and even Aunt Beth seemed to believe it imperative to remove the tooth before the tooth itself was ready to turn loose. Thus, the string or piece of thread would be tied at the base of the tooth, just below the gum line if possible. The adult would stand on the other end of the string and pull. It didn’t always work. The thread could unwrap itself or simply break. So, if pulling the thread by hand failed to produce the desired result, the unattached end of the thread would be tied to the handle of an open door, all slack removed and then the door slammed with great force with the intent of yanking the tooth from the head. This too would sometimes, and often, fail.
If neither of these methods produced the desired result-a separation of baby tooth from aging mouth-then it was determined the tooth was just not quite ready, and it was left for another day. I, however, had been subjected to terrible dread all the while praying that the offender would turn loose so that I would not have to go through this again. Surprisingly this process was not at all painful, but it was terrifying and there was sometimes blood.
My method of tooth pulling was much more pleasant. I simply let it fall out on its own. The only risk involved in this method consisted of either losing the tooth altogether or accidently swallowing it. In either case there would be nothing to exchange with the tooth fairy and I would be deprived of my anticipated quarter or two. This had happened once at my great grandmother’s house, so I was well aware of the consequences. On that particular occasion I reached with my tongue to wiggle my tooth. It was not there! I had lost it! I scoured the floors of the little trailer. I searched the bathroom, the bedroom and the little porch. In desperation I grabbed the little manual dust sweeper and began gathering any debris that may have been on the floor, before searching the reservoir for my treasure. Nothing! All was lost-or so I thought.
Maw came to me with the tiny tooth in her hand and a laugh in her voice. “I found it.” she said. “It was in your roll.” My after school jelly filled dinner roll had saved me from the dreaded string and door slam. Of course, by this time the root of that particular tooth was likely hanging on by a mere thread itself.
This time, however, was different. All methods of tooth pulling had been employed. I had even made attempts to pull the little tooth out myself using my thumb and forefinger, pulling down hoping it would release its grip from whatever it was hanging onto within the depths of my gums. When the fingers slipped I grabbed a paper towel for traction. Either I failed to complete this task with conviction or the little tooth was more stubborn that I am said to be.
Papaw Robert, seeing the difficulty of the situation, took matters into his own hands. Well, not literally. “Well, you know,” he said in his Louisiana drawl made more pronounced when speaking to a little girl who happened to be his grandchild, “when I was a boy Daddy would give us taffy to take a stubborn tooth out. It’s so sticky it just pulls it right on out, it don’t hurt any and it tastes good.” So, papaw loaded me up in the truck for an adventure-just me and him.
We didn’t go too far, but all along the way Papaw regaled me with stories about loose teeth and taffy. He told me how his brothers and sister had always looked forward to getting a loose tooth, not just because of the profitable trade with the tooth fairy, but because his daddy would always take them to get taffy.
The dirt swirled behind the pickup as we drove down talk old dirt road. Then we hit blacktop and I knew it wouldn’t be far. One turn to the right and Spillers’ Grocery was in sight. The white wood frame building trimmed with weathered green paint met us at the corner. Papaw pulled up into the unpaved yard just in front of the store and we climbed out. He dropped off his empty coke bottles into the crates outside just as we climbed the green wooden steps onto the slatted porch. A couple of rusty metal chairs like I had seen at Papaw Ed Doc’s sat to the right-I suppose for customers who wanted to sit a spell.
I took hold of the handle on the screen door, knowing just where I was going, the creek of the door welcoming us into a world of childhood delights. Bushel baskets of wrapped candy were within reach on the floor while the special treats lived in glass jars at the counter. Red refrigerated Coca Cola cases that I knew would be crystallized with thick snowy ice promised bubbly thirst quenchers in glass bottles: cokes, Dr. Pepper, Root Beer and even the sweet smooth Chocolate Soldiers, which was my absolute favorite. In a second close running to the Chocolate Soldier was Root Beer. All we had to do was lift the lid and make our choice.
I knew I wanted a Root Beer since Mr. Spillers didn’t hide the Chocolate Soldiers way in the back closest to the ice like the store owner in Epps. He did that so my sister, Melly, and I would have a cold drink after getting off the bus. Those Chocolate Soldiers were so cold that ice crystals formed inside the bottle! Mr. Spillers didn’t have ice cream like at Thompson’s grocery, but he was Papaw’s friend and always gave you five cents for every glass bottle you brought back to the store.
Mr. Spillers walked around the counter to shake Papaw’s hand. They had the same color hair-dark, with some salt starting to show through, but Mr. Spillers was not as tall as Papaw, few men were really.
“She has a loose tooth.” Papaw said, as if that was the explanation for us being here. Well, it was, but I knew Papaw wanted some cigars as well.
Mr. Spillers nodded his head, a wise look of understanding resting upon his face. Maybe it was because he was a preacher too, but more likely it was because he’d been in the grocery business for just about most his life…at least for as long as I had been alive. And I thought, likely much much longer.
“Let’s see what we can do about that.” He walked over to one of the bushel baskets, picked up some taffy on a stick and showed it to me. “Is it a front tooth or a back tooth.”
“Front one!” I replied as I opened my mouth to show him the offending wobbler and wiggled it with my fingers all while eying the candy in wide eyed anticipation.
“Well, this aught ‘a do it, then. But why don’t ya get you some of this soft salt-water taffy over here too…just for good measure. How ‘bout some bubble gum. Here’s a bag.” He handed me a small paper bag as he filled it with the soft taffy and bubble gum while handing me the stick taffy to hold.
“And get your sister somethin’ too.” Papaw added.
“And I guess you need somethin’ cold on this hot day to wash it all down.” Mr. Spillers walked over to the coke chest. “What ya want?”
“Root Beer. Melly’ll want a Chocolate Soldier.”
“Got it.” He popped the top to the Root Beer with the opener on the side of the cooler and handed it to me.
Papaw and Mr. Spillers finished up their business while I busily unwrapped the hard sticky taffy and sipped on my Root Beer. The bottle was frosty and wisps of what I thought was smoke rose from the bottle’s narrow opening. I remembered the chairs outside on the porch and hurried out the screen door, managing a “Thank you!” as it slammed behind me.
Papaw found me later, not in the chairs, but sitting on the edge of the porch, dangling my legs from the side, swinging them back and forth, chewing on that taffy and taking short swigs from my still frosty root beer. I knew if I finished it before we left the store I could get five cents for the bottle. That would buy me a few more pieces of bubble gum!
The taffy did not work! The tooth held fast. I’m not even certain how that tooth finally made its way out of my mouth and under my pillow, but I do remember that spontaneous adventure with my Papaw. From then on it became our tradition-get a loose tooth, go get taffy. As time went on it wasn’t always at Spillers’ Grocery, but Papaw never forgot, and I’d usually come home with what he called “plunder”-a small brown paper bag filled with an assortment of sweet goodies.
Eventually I lost all my baby teeth, as all of us do. There was no more ‘loose teeth and taffy’ adventures. However, years later, as young adults, Melly and I went on a road trip with Papaw. I don’t recall the occasion or the destination, but I do remember stopping in Leesville for a quick stop at a store. “Got’ta have a ‘bag of plunder’ for the road.” Papaw said. He filled a small brown paper bag with a variety of goodies- single pieces of wrapped candy and bubblegum.
I never liked taffy. Still don’t. Give me chocolate any day. What I had hoped for at Spillers’ Grocery was the fancy candy displayed in the jars on the counter; but, what I wanted most was to spend time with my Papaw. And for that, every loose tooth I suffered, and every single piece of taffy endured was worth it. And sometimes, all these years later, with children and grandchildren of my own, I will eat a piece of salt-water taffy and remember those sweet trips with my Papaw.