Mother has a silver salt cellar cupped in her hands which she holds out towards me as if she were a beggar. Her gesture reminds me of the scene in the musical Oliver when the young Oliver asks for a second portion of gruel. I am unsettled by her gesture and my reaction to it, but I can’t work out why.
What I do know is that she has made a huge effort to bring that salt cellar downstairs because it is usually hidden in an orange Sainsbury’s bag under her bed with other dusty pieces of family silverware.
She keeps the salt cellar under her bed
To get it, she’s had to rummage around on her hands and knees, which given the arthritis in her hips and knees will have been very painful. She wouldn’t have done this unless it was important to her.
‘Why have you got that old salt cellar out, mum?’ I ask.
‘I was thinking of rowing across the Thames in it,’ she snaps. ‘Do you think it’s big enough?’
The salt cellar is approximately two inches in diameter.
‘Nice one, granny,’ says my son from the kitchen table, his fist raised above his head in salute.
‘Thank you, darling,’ she says to him, like a standup comedian acknowledging the audience’s applause.
‘To get some salt, of course. What else?’ she says to me.
‘But why do you need salt?’
‘To clean my teeth,’ she says. ‘What is this: Twenty Questions?’
To clean her teeth?
We are in different Galaxies
At moments like these, I’ve learnt to take a deep breath and wait. She and I are temporarily living in parallel universes. There is a logic to what she’s said but it isn’t apparent to me because it’s based on the natural laws which govern her universe not mine. If I am patient our universes may realign and the mystery will reveal itself.
I look at my wife and raise my eyebrows.
‘Have you run out of toothpaste?’ asks my wife.
She cleaned her teeth with salt in the War
Mother explains that she ran out of toothpaste ten days ago while the rest of us were holidaying in the Brecon Beacons. She is still scared to go to the shops because of the ‘Covid thing’ and doesn’t want to burden us – ‘even more than she already does’ – by asking us to buy toothpaste for her. Instead, she’s come up with a better alternative to toothpaste: salt. Ta Da!
Mother sees the horror in my face as I imagine what the salt must be doing to the enamel on her teeth and says quickly: ‘We cleaned our teeth with salt during the War, you know.’
‘But that’s like using a metal scourer on a non-stick pan,’ I say.
‘Nonsense. It’s bloody good for your gums. Everyone knows that.’
When Mother uses the phrase –‘Everyone knows that’ – it is because she’s on a sticky wicket and wants to close the argument down quickly. Once she’s said this, she will only shake her head, silently and relentlessly if you try to carry on the debate.
My daughter comes into the kitchen.
There’s a dead tooth on the kitchen table
‘Is this someone’s tooth?’ she asks, holding an ivory slither between some loo roll.
‘Arghhh. Gross,’ says my son.
After a short hiatus, in which my son suggests she may be holding the relic of an ancient saint, Mother confesses the ivory slither is half of one of her lateral incisors. The tooth fell out yesterday and she decided to wrap it in loo paper to keep it safe for the dentist when she next sees him.
‘There. You see,’ I say. ‘It’s the bloody salt chipping your teeth away.’
‘Imbecile’ mutters Mother.
‘Perhaps it belongs to a woolly mammoth?’ asks my son, staring at the chipped tooth as it lies on the kitchen table like a museum exhibit.
‘Does it hurt?’ asks my wife.
Mother sits down. Yes, it hurts a little. It’s more a throb than a pain. She was going to mention it to us as she didn’t think it was anything worth worrying about. A paracetamol is all she needs.
Immediately, I phone the dentist to ask for an appointment, but because of Covid they won’t take bookings until the dentist has done a phone consultation. Face to face appointments are not the new normal. Mother refuses to do a phone consultation because her hearing is bad ‘today’ and no one speaks ‘clearly’ anymore, so I speak to the dentist when he calls back.
‘You’ll have to be my eyes,’ he says to me. ‘Can you ask her to open her mouth and tell me what condition her teeth and gums are in.’
Peering into her mouth, I feel like a cave diver
‘The dentist wants me to look into your mouth,’ I shout at Mother, feeling queasy like a cave diver on their first solo dive.
‘Open your mouth wide so I can see what’s going on in there?’
‘Not on your nelly,’ she says. ‘What do you think I am a bloody horse having its teeth inspected at a gypsy fair? Give me the phone. I’ll diagnose myself.’
With that, she grabs the phone. Her hearing is miraculously restored and she and the dentist decide a short course of antibiotics is the first thing to be done.
‘There. All done. Now give me some baking soda and some salt and I’ll polish up this beautiful old salt cellar. The cellar was a wedding gift from your father’s mother. She was a dreadful woman but she did have very good taste.’