My mother-in-law was a very frugal person. So was her husband, Hal. Before he died in 2005, he informed her that he had quite a bit of gold in his mouth in the form of dental work. He had read an article about morticians mining for dental gold before cremating or burying the dead.
My mother-in-law was no dummy and, because she was also frugal, once he was gone and before he was cremated, she beat the mortician to the booty and told him that she would take that gold, thank you.
I myself have a gold crown. Once it came unglued mid-chew, and by the time I had chomped on it and spit it out, it looked like a large gold nugget. It bore no resemblance to a tooth. I assumed that what came out of Hal’s mouth looked the same. I even imagined the mortician using pliers and a knee to pillage the gold from poor Hal’s mouth.
In December of that year, my mother-in-law told our son Dylan, then 15 years old, that in lieu of a wrapped present, she was going to send him a small box that would contain broken gold jewelry, a few gold earrings without mates, and the gold remains of Hal—his dental work. She wanted Dylan to cash the gold in at a jewelry store and use the money to buy himself a Christmas present. Dylan was delirious with excitement, certain that the cash value would get him a down payment on a Ferrari for his 16th birthday.
A large Christmas package from Grandma arrived and Dylan tore into it, rummaging through the assortment of gifts and cookies anxious to behold his treasure trove of gold. There, nestled amongst the cookies and other wrapped gifts was a little white box with a rubber band around it. We knew instantly it contained the loot.
With great reverence, Dylan lowered his hand into the box to pick up the Holy Grail of gold. He said it was heavy and handed it to me for confirmation. Sure enough, it felt like it contained a pound of gold. I handed it back, as anxious as he was to see the contents. We huddled close as he slid the rubber band away and when he cracked the lid open we held our breath, half-expecting a golden ray of light to beam from within.
What we saw instead, made us gasp.
There, grinning at us on a tuft of cotton, was Hal’s full bridge of intact upper choppers that we had seen a million times in his ear-to-ear smile. Dylan dropped the box on the table as if it had suddenly grown hot and we stood in stunned silence with our hands cupped over our own mouths. After much groaning, Dylan found the courage to pick up a pencil and poke at them as I watched between my fingers. Sure enough, the backside of the teeth revealed that they were gold.
I can assure you, it brewed an ethical dilemma as to whether or not we should cash in Hal’s smile. It answered the question why Grandma chose to make it Dylan’s Christmas present, since she probably struggled with the same dilemma. We decided not to rush off to the jewelry store just yet. We closed the box and with a bit of ceremony and genuflecting we placed it on a shelf near Hal’s picture.
It used to be a Yuletide tradition with Dylan and me in the week before Christmas, to shop for a special ornament that in some way symbolized the year gone by. As we perused the store that December, I said to Dylan, “What could we get to commemorate your grandpa?”
The answer was suddenly obvious. We couldn’t get out of that store fast enough, once we realized that we could tie a string around Hal’s choppers and hang those babies right on the tree. After all, they were gold and shiny on the back.
Hal had a great sense of humor. He would have loved it.