I don’t think I was even three years old yet when it happened. My earliest childhood memory is slipping on a wet, wooden kitchen bench and knocking out my two front teeth. Oddly, I can’t remember crying or being in pain, although I vaguely remember being rushed to the car to see the doctor. Or was it the dentist? The family could only find one of the two teeth with the second remaining a mystery until I had x-rays. Apparently, I had fallen so hard that my missing tooth was embedded somewhere up by my nose.
So, there I was, not even three years old, without my two front teeth. Back in those days of no health or dental insurance, especially with my family’s impecunious circumstances, oral surgery or false teeth were not options for me. No, my parents took a different approach, one that typifies how they helped all of us get through awkward, painful, or disappointing experiences. Instead of pitying or coddling me, they helped me embrace my new look with humor and confidence. For example, they featured me at our family Christmas parties, encouraging me to belt out the song, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Of course, I loved the attention from the elderly people who clapped wildly at my performances, but the more lasting feelings of acceptance came from Mom and Dad, who helped me love myself just the way I was and who helped me see myself as special instead of funny-looking. As far as they were concerned, being toothless set me apart in a positive way.
I was in third grade before my permanent teeth finally came in, so I spent many formative years grinning like a pumpkin. From pictures, I see it might have taken me a while to smile wide, but I have no memories whatsoever worrying about what people thought. In fact, I was proud of my smile—the one that Mom always told me lit up my face. This early training in self-worth has helped me my entire life, but probably most during the awkward teenage years. Once, in junior high a friend made fun of my big nose. “Too bad it bothers you,” I remember thinking to myself. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
I'm the twelfth of 13 children. I was born into a poor family living in a big house on top of a hill in South Pasadena, California. We called it Tanner Manor, and these are my stories of growing up there.