“I was married in 1882, when I was fourteen, to a man who was forty-four,” began my grandmother, when I asked her why she had a little bald spot in the middle of her head. I was five years old in 1951 when I asked my grandmother that question.
“Four years before we married, your future grandfather, Nicholas, had returned to Amioun [our Lebanese mountain town]after spending twenty years in America and serving four years in the American Army. He built a grand stone house and started looking for a wife. He was modern and could read and write both Arabic and English. I hid behind the wall when he came to visit us because I was unschooled, simple, and poor. Smallpox was in the air then, and he told my father that to protect me from coming down with smallpox, he would have to brand me in the middle of my head with a hot coin, a trick he had learned from gypsies who used to pass through Amioun when he was growing up. He was modern, you see, and knew things no one else knew. He knew about the smallpox vaccine because he was vaccinated when he served in the American Army. But the ruling Turks would only give the smallpox vaccine to their soldiers, never to us people.
“During his third visit to our home, my father called me, saying my suitor had brought me a gift of sugar. In 1882, under Turkish rule, people were starving in Amioun and no one had sugar. When I ran in, screaming with excitement, my father held me tight to his chest, and your future grandfather, Nicholas, branded me in the middle of my head with an American coin, which he had heated on hot coals.
“As soon as my father let go of me, I ran away with my tears and hid among the olive trees. My mother came looking for me, put oil on my burn, and told me that Nicholas branded me because he wanted to protect my beauty from becoming disfigured by smallpox. She also brought me a sandwich of olive oil and sugar, which I ate when I stopped sobbing. I had never tasted sugar before.
“Still I was so angry at him that I hid each time he came to visit. My mother pleaded with me to marry him, but I was stubborn. Finally, my father asked me on Easter Sunday, when we were at church, what it would take for me to accept Nicholas’s hand in marriage. I said that I wanted a golden tooth. At that time, no woman in Amioun had a golden tooth, and I wanted to be the first. ‘But your teeth are fine,’ protested my father. I countered by saying that I do not want new clothes; I just want a golden tooth that shone each time I smiled.
“And so, it was. My father, my fiancé, and I took an all-day carriage trip to Tripoli. It was my first trip and by the time we arrived, I was exhausted because the carriage ride had made me sick and I vomited all the way from Amioun to Tripoli. We spent the night in an inn and visited the dentist the next day. He had to order the gold from a jeweler and shape it to fit my right upper incisor. On the third day, I had my golden tooth and we headed back home. Again, I vomited all the way back, but it was worth it because I was the only woman in Amioun who had a golden tooth.
“A month later, I married Nicholas, who was as old as my father; they had grown up together and were good friends. I smiled all the way down the aisle for all to see my golden tooth. When I became pregnant with my first child, Nicholas was ordained as the town’s priest and my name changed to Khouryeh [the priest’s wife]. I bore him eight children; your father was my seventh, and he was four years old when your grandfather, Nicholas, died at eighty-four. He returned from working the land one afternoon, asked me to lay down his mattress and call all the children, for we slept on the floor then and rolled up the mattresses and stowed them in the closet by day. With all of us around him, he recited the Lord’s Prayer, smiled, closed his eyes, and died. Life is a long story, Dear, but telling it takes such a short time.”
That night, I lay awake pondering my grandmother’s life. The one question nagging on my mind—the question I did not have time to ask because we had to return home to Tripoli—had to wait till Easter Sunday. After church, lunch, and coffee, when the big stone house quieted down, allowing me time for private talk, I asked my question.
“Grandma,” I began, for she was eighty-three and edentulous by then. “What happened to your golden tooth?”
A sad gleam shone from her eyes and a faint smile quivered on her weather worn lips as she paused for a sigh of recall and then began. “Your grandfather left me with eight children and no income except for what I could eke from our olive trees and vineyards. He was tall, strong, and could work the land. I was small and frail and could not do the needed labor. My three older boys had immigrated to Argentina and the two boys at hand did their best to fill their father’s shoes. But, under French rule, things were just as bad as under Turkish rule. My health deteriorated and I lost all my teeth except for my golden tooth. When your father could not make enough money to pay for his tuition, I resolved to sell my golden tooth, but I was not going to ride the car to Tripoli because of the horrible carsickness I would have to endure.
“There was no dentist in Amioun, but there was a man who could pull teeth with little pain. I went to him and he agreed to pull my golden tooth for five kilos of olives. He sat me on a chair, tied a thin string to my tooth, passed the string under the chair, up over the door, and tied it to the five kilos of olives, which I had brought him in a basket. He then put a bamboo rod between my jaws to prevent me from biting, and had his wife hold my head tight against her chest. Then, from behind the door, he raised the basket, with the five kilos of olives in it, and dropped it to the floor. My tooth flew out of my mouth, down under the chair, up over the door, and out to where he was standing. It was so sudden that I felt no pain. His wife handed me a roll of cloth and asked me to bite on it to stop the bleeding.
“When I walked out with the cloth in my mouth, I found the man screaming, chasing after the cat who had gotten hold of the tooth and was running away with it. The cat disappeared and so did my golden tooth, and with it your father’s tuition. The man felt so bad that he gave me back my five kilos of olives.
“When your father found out, he cried angry tears because I had concealed my scheme from him. He wrote a letter to his three older brothers in Argentina and told them the golden-tooth story. A few weeks later, a letter arrived with enough Argentinian pesos in it to pay for your father’s tuition. The pesos kept coming, month after month, until your father finished medical school. Now, he’s the one who takes care of us all. Sometimes, what seems like a loss is in fact a gain.”
My grandmother’s stories have formed and formatted me, giving me global dimensions and making me a proud citizen of the world. What a frail, illiterate, head-branded, golden-toothed widow taught me was that the real world-wide-web connects humanity not with electrons but rather with love, labor, and opportunity.
I will never forget her eyes, full of history, and her scalp, stamped with an 1876 twenty-cent coin, a rare collectors’ item that left an indelible mark on our lives. My grandmother died in 1972, clear minded, in her own bed, at the age of one hundred and four—on the very same mattress that her husband, an American Veteran who had returned to become the town’s priest, died fifty-one years earlier.
My grandmother never came down with smallpox, and we found the 1876 twenty-cent coin wrapped with my grandfather’s wedding ring in a yellowed handkerchief stashed inside a small wooden box.
We never found her golden tooth.
Lebanese-born Dr. Hanna Saadeh, MD is both a creative writer and an infectious disease specialist in Oklahoma City, OK. He travelled to the US in 1971 for completing his post graduate medical training. The twenty-year Lebanese Civil War prevented him from returning to his fatherland, thus making Oklahoma his second home, where he has been productive as both physician and writer. Dr. Saadeh has authored five poetry books, four novels, and a collection of short stories.
For more about Dr. Saadeh’s literary works, please visit his website on https://www.hannasaadah.com/ or his amazon page on https://www.amazon.com/Hanna-Saadah/e/B0191XNZ6C%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share