By the time I was old enough to notice such things, I discovered that both my mother’s parents were toothless. Not a molar or bicuspid in their heads. This revelation involved the remarkable discovery of two sets of dentures, each one submerged in its own glass of slightly opaque liquid and placed strategically on separate bed stands for easy reach upon awakening. At age 7, this was like finding dinosaur eggs in the desert, or something else equally stunning and unexpected. I immediately wanted to know the backstory. What happened to their teeth?

“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” – Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote” Courtesy image

Now that I’m nearly 70, and a recent recipient of oral surgery (a particularly unpleasant experience; not the operation – I was zonked – but the lengthy mouth-aching recovery), I finally get it. I haven’t lost any permanent teeth yet (I still have all my wisdom teeth), but now I can see the writing on the wall, and I don’t like what it says: Live long enough and all those childhood cavities and skateboard accidents and overly aggressive teeth brushings will take their inevitable toll, and the bell tolls for thee.

My mother had poor teeth, not surprisingly, considering her toothless parents. So at least half my genetic inheritance is hardwired for dental disaster. “Time to jump ship!” I can imagine my panicked canines calling out. “This boat is sinking fast!” A doomed voyage on the Tusk Titanic.

For most of my life I’ve taken pretty good care of my teeth, brushing, flossing, gargling. But in my 40s, I got mad at my dentist for merging with another dental practice and completely losing that small, patient-friendly approach to dental care. Like one day he was running a mom-and-pop shop and then overnight he’d become Walmart. So I walked, and I didn’t see a dentist again for six years. When I finally regained my sanity and found a dentist I liked and trusted (plus, the guy surfed and played in a rock band) the damage was done. It took two years and 12 thousand dollars to get my mouth back to something like normal.

I like having my own teeth. I don’t want implants or dentures if I can avoid them. My wife told me if she ever finds dentures in a glass by the bed she’s leaving me. So, there’s a whole lot more at stake here than good dental health.

I guess I’ll have to reconcile myself to more years of painful gum grafts, ill-fitting crowns, sleep-depriving mouth guards, three-times-a-year cleanings and other assorted periodontal indignities and expenses. But it’ll be worth it if I don’t end up looking like Rudy Giuliani, with that cartoonish set of choppers he now sports, real or the product of orthodontic malpractice.

Miguel de Cervantes, the author of “Don Quixote,” said: “Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” That sounds about right. Though in my case I’d have to say that every tooth in my mouth is insurance against not ending up as a lonely, divorced and decrepit old man. My marriage depends on keeping those pearly whites intact and in place.

Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Until your teeth fall out.

Steven Price is a Kennebunkport resident. He can be reached at [email protected]

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