When Family-Owned Falters
You can't manufacture community with good marketing or aesthetics or intent on a budget of time. It takes years; it takes genuine intent and hundreds of connections before the reputation of a family owned or small business or office begins to resemble something of a community, a network. For as long as it takes to build, it takes only a moment to crumble. I'm talking about the unexpected heartbreak of a dentists' visit. (wait what?)
Six months ago, Dr. Z suddenly left his practice, citing all good reasons. He and his young family wanted to move to his parents to be nearer to them. His father, the original Dr. Z, started the practice and worked on my teeth until I was a pre-teen. His son became my dentist and from then on I don't recall ever dreading the dentist due to our jovial conversations and my continued dental hygiene. Dr. Z ensured us in his letter that this new young dentist was one he trusted at the helm. I was shocked but happy for him. How different would a new dentist be? I was unconcerned.
Time to see about that.
It wasn’t until I walked in and saw the three frames replaced that I felt disappointed. Two were recolored photographs of children on a beach and another of a sailboat. The third was a childish color block painting where smiling circle-faced people of all skin tones held hands in a circle. They weren’t something I admired or thought about much; merely a place for my eyes to rest while waiting for the drill. But their absence tore a small hole in my memory. In their place were photographs of a forest and various diplomas. The receptionist was new, but I suppose Barbara had decided to stay home with her baby after all. The comically oversized yellow toothbrush had been replaced five years ago, but I recalled it now as four diplomas appeared now on the wall. I sat down on a new, black leather chair and took in the new grey lined floors, fake orchid, and contemporary women’s magazines. It was as ordinary and aesthetically pleasing as any doctor's office you can visit anywhere. But here, in this space, it was like the dream I had the previous night that I couldn't shake all day. Something was terribly wrong.
"Alex?" Now, the only face I recognized, Rosa, walked to show me the room. I smiled at her and said sadly and hopefully, "it's nice to see a familiar face." "Yeah, I'm the last one," she said, shrugging. Although I’m pretty sure her job is to check on patients before the dentist or hygienist comes in by asking questions about dental health, Rosa and I only every talked about life. She was easygoing the way you don't see often in medical settings; all sway and no bustle. As she talked she leaned her body against the back of the x-ray machine. We talked about her children (one was the former receptionist), jobs, traveling. “If my kids weren’t here, pffft---” she motioned with a hand cutting across the air—“I’d be back. In Italy.” We talked about Italy, relatives. She told me that no on in Italy is crazy like we’re crazy here. “I mean, they are CRAZY,” she emphasized, “but not like this. Everyone rushing. Needing something right now, can’t wait. Everyone driving everywhere.” She spoke this as she raised her eyebrows, shrugged her shoulders, and sighed. My head shook in unison. I told her how this past summer on the Camino I had met a Swiss man who lived close to the Italian border and seemed to embody this attitude. On my first night walking, anticipating the journey to come in Bilbao, I was bristling with nerves and possibilities. I wasn't yet exhausted from the daily walking so I tried to capture the late sunlight over the red brick Bilbao with watercolor in my sketchbook. I was talking to a new friend, this Swiss man, as he smoked his cigarette and I sketched. The atmosphere was so serene I remember trying to capture and remembering that peace on paper. I described my feelings of anticipation; I told him something like: "I just hope I can relax. This year and the trip so far has been chaotic." He then very lightly and naturally grasped my hand and said "Alex, it is the easiest thing, to relax." as he exhaled smoke from his lungs. I felt tears well up in my eyes, knowing the tension of my country and its hectic pace and thus my hectic life was written all over me.
Rosa spoke also of how families lived there, and communities. "You are a part of it everywhere." I nodded, I felt the same; and I was reminded of the lack of community here, in this now-foreign dentist chair. Missing the familiar I'd overlooked. Blue gummy sticky hands, spinning tops, temporary tattoos, keychains. The trappings of a dentist visit I could recall in my sleep in order: talking and catching up, flossing, brushing, x-rays, fluoride mask, toy, name on the “good brushers board.” Mixed in each step was a fluid conversation from Dr. Z, and garbled sounds until he took the scraper out of my mouth for me to respond. I was lucky. I hated most procedures during the visit. But Dr. Z was the bright spot in my visit. He wrote down what I’d talked about last time and picked back up. Asked about my brothers, remembered their names after 10 years of them actually being patients. We talked a lot about travel. He traveled the world before dentist school; he even met his wife while traveling in South America. We talked about cathedrals, first cars, school, college. He offered advice and responded to my spit-laden answers, which I’m sure wasn’t easy while also not jamming a metal tool into my gums.
Cue my new dentist.
I had almost felt like crying when talking to Rosa. Strange what kinship can form over being the last of the old guard, seeing the changeover from family owned to new practice. Now I really felt like crying because Dr. D was jabbing my gums with the sharp end of the scraper. “Are you flossing?” “Yes.” “Everyday?” “Yes.” “There’s a lot of blood. I’ll have to show you how to floss better.” I kept my proverbial mouth shut since; I didn’t have the tact to tell her that the blood was unusual because the dentists and hygienists I’d had before had never jabbed my gums in multiple places during a cleaning. How many degrees were in the front room? Were there any specializing in aggressive dentistry?
I wasn’t being fair. But as I looked up, rather than listen to the voice of someone I’d talked to for more than a decade while using a spit-suction, counting how many nose hairs extending pretty far out of his nostrils, seeing the large, sunny, yellow overhead lamp, I saw this new face, with fancy eye-glass magnifier/lamp combo. The sunny yellow overhead lamp was still there, but covered over with plastic, light off and obviously obsolete. Much like my feelings, the toys, the bright colors, the childish choices were obsolete. The cleaning passed without event. She packed my dentist bag for me (I didn’t choose the color). We passed by the good brushers board ( Where I had signed it “Alexa the Great” since reading about Alexander the Great in 5th grade. So clever, but not today.) I checked out at the desk. The new face at the desk didn't ask about my mother because she didn't know my mother and didn't know me.
Dr. D is a good dentist, I'm sure. She may develop strong relationships with her patients. Maybe her receptionist is already familiar with other patients and their mothers. Maybe other patients will unconsciously relax in the office seeing the familiarity of the photographs on the wall I saw as alien. Someone's loss is another beginning. But I still felt like something treasured was lost because the practice was not a tradition of father to son. That sense of care and commitment and personality was gone in a routine move. I can imagine it was hard for Dr. Z to leave, and his father, Dr. Z, to retire when he did. It feels surreal, as a patient, to see that gone overnight (as six months can feel between teeth cleanings).
some kind of community
So, why was I so emotional? Was it the approaching full moon? The lack of sleep or stressful work day? Or more of an unexpected feeling, one that comes from there being a space that used to exist, that does not anymore. When my parents no longer needed our home number and home phone, the feelings were similar, and unwelcome as they were strange. What will happen to the memories of my childhood phone number? What good comes from still having it memorized? Why did I make fun of my mother for keeping the defunct answering machine, with recordings of my siblings and I and now-gone family members? That was her way of memorializing the lost. At least I had Rosa to talk to and muse about our different but connected reminiscences on a place.
When you're not aware of your attachments to certain relationships you compartmentalize, such as teachers, dentists, doctors, etc., whenever you build a relationship with someone, even if they're not your friend, it hurts like hell when that connection is severed. I'd never considered the details of a dentists office worthy of reminiscence and fondness, but the human heart is a funny thing that likes what it likes and doesn't always say why.
In the first chapter of her new work, Feel Free, Zadie Smith protests the downsizing and stripping of a library and several small businesses in Willesden, London. "Everybody's just standing around, talking, buying or not buying cheese, as the mood takes them." She goes on to describe the bustle of activity around the concrete structure of the Willesden Green Library Centre of families, market sellers, children, homeless men, all outside, "simply standing around in the sunshine, like some kind of community." While the antagonists of this essay are politicians and corporate profiteers looking to make money off of luxury apartments, and not the normal move of a dentist out of his family practice, the gap exists in both stories. The gap left by the congregate mass that is brought together by physical space, need, and routine.
Maybe, in the end, it's all simply an allegory for the leaving behind of childhood, though I'd hate to stake my childhood on a one-story brick medical office that always smelled like Lysol and carpet cleaner. That family feeling of being remembered, of being made to feel important doesn't discriminate based on location or activity. It's something we all need. To manufacture it is nearly impossible. And if it can't be passed down through a family, then I hope the need for it grows on its own.
-written by Alex Ferel
Have a place you remember lost to change or circumstance that you grew unexpectedly attached to? Share in the comments, I'd love to hear.