Beautiful teeth, beautiful clothes, wonderful family—she had it all. And we were best friends, too. Sort of.
The Girl with the All-American Teeth03453_000_013
As if being a kid isn’t bad enough. I had to grow up next door to the girl with the All-American teeth. Allison (“two ls”) Adamson had the straightest, whitest teeth in the history of orthodontistry. Adults always commented on this. You could count on them to say, “Doesn’t the Adamson girl have lovely teeth?” every time they got together.
As for me, I was more interested in the fact that Allison took tap, tumbling, ballet, baton, and hula lessons after school. She also played the piano and collected dolls from different countries. Best of all, she had her own dog—a white poodle named Hercules. Me, I just had a goldfish named Ralph. You can probably see already how things were for me growing up next door to someone like Allison Adamson.
Because we were neighbors who happened to be LDS, Allison and I ended up doing things together all the time. During the summer we went to the pool with Allison’s mom, and during the winter we watched cartoons after school together. This made everyone think, of course, that we were best friends, and we were. Sort of.
The problem was that underneath all my smiles I was jealous of Allison. I wanted all the pretty girl things she had that my parents couldn’t buy for me so badly that my chest literally hurt at times. I wanted her dolls, her canopy bed with the foamy pink bedspread, her play makeup case with the play makeup. I can remember sitting in her white wicker rocker one day and telling her I’d trade my shoebox of Bazooka bubble gum wrappers for one of her bendable Barbies. She wasn’t interested, of course.
Our eighth birthdays were coming up in April, and one day on the way home from school Allison asked who was going to baptize me.
I hadn’t thought about it much. “I don’t know,” I confessed. “Who’s going to baptize you?”
“My dad,” she said proudly.
“Well I guess my dad will baptize me, too, then,” I told her. I’d never seen anyone baptized—I’m the oldest in my family—but I figured my dad could probably do it if someone showed him how.
Allison looked at me with wide disbelieving blue eyes. “But he can’t!” she exclaimed.
This was news to me. “Why?” I wanted to know.
“Because my mom says he can’t. My mom says he isn’t worthy.”
I didn’t know what the word worthy meant, but I didn’t like Allison’s tone.
“Yes he is too worthy,” I said.
“No he’s not.”
“Yes he is.”
Allison stopped and stared at me the way our third-grade teacher always stared at stupid Stewart Lufgren. “Your dad is not worthy, Brenda, because he doesn’t go to church and he smokes. I know he smokes because I can smell it when I go to your house.” She wrinkled her little button nose in distaste. “Don’t you know anything?”
My throat suddenly felt very tight. Blood was pounding in my ears. “I hate you, Allison Adamson,” I said finally. Then I turned and ran home.
Our house is so busy with people that no one noticed how miserable I was at first. At dinner, though, Mom squinted her eyes at me and said across the table, “Are you okay, Brenda honey?”
I nodded yes.
She came into my bedroom that night before I fell asleep. “Did something happen to you at school today, Brenda? You can tell me about it if you want to.”
“No, nothing happened,” I answered, as tonelessly as a telephone operator.
Mom just sat there on the foot of my bed for a minute. Then she said, “Do you want to talk to Daddy?” Sometimes I told him things I wouldn’t tell anybody else. But this time I shook my head. Hard.
I lay awake in bed for a long time that night watching shadows skip across my wall. Yessir, Allison had it all—extra money for Weekly Reader paperbacks, a locket with pictures inside, a father who could baptize her.
That was the first time I realized that my dad was different. I mean I always knew he didn’t go to church, but that hadn’t added up to anything—you think your father is just like everybody else’s dad when you’re a kid. But Allison had opened my eyes. The day we were baptized, Allison, looking like she had just stepped out of a fairy tale in her long white gown, was taken into the font by her smiling father. I was baptized by my Uncle Bill. Dad sat in the congregation looking uncomfortable in a suit. His rough brown worker’s hands were folded in his lap.
Things changed some between my father and me after that. Not that you could tell by looking at us—he still teased and tickled me and called me Sport and I still begged him to take me to baseball games. For sure we loved each other. But I didn’t tell him private things anymore. And then, too, I started noticing all the ways he wasn’t worthy. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself.
If things changed between my father and me then, they changed even more between Allison and me. By the time we were freshmen in high school, we had pretty much gone our separate ways. Allison went from honors class to honors class while I wore an Army jacket and hung around the library with this nice but weird group of kids who all wanted to be science fiction writers when they grew up. Although she thought my friends were bad enough, it was the Army jacket that really got to Allison. “Only our boys in the armed forces should wear khaki,” she used to say.
And now this year, the girl with the all-American teeth and I are taking early-morning seminary together. There are two teachers—Brother Marshall and Brother Phillips. Brother Marshall is Mormondom’s answer to Robert Redford. All jawbone and blond hair, Brother Marshall is gorgeous. He also lettered in about a million sports when he was in college, so you can see he’s athletic, too. Besides this he’s young, nice, smart, and very funny. All the kids love him. Brother Phillips, on the other hand, is old enough to have fought in World War II. He’s small and stooped, just like a little gnome, and when he talks he whispers.
Funny thing, though, I like Brother Phillips best. I like the way he listens carefully to your questions, then thinks for a while before he answers. And lots of times he’ll answer, “I don’t know.” This drives Allison crazy. “If he wants to teach seminary then he should know,” she says. Maybe he should. I can’t say. I just like the way he seems so thoughtful about things.
The reason I’m even telling you all this is that I have a problem. I’m not talking about your typical teenager problems—losing books, being ambushed by a gang of pimples the night before a dance, dropping lunch trays. No. This one is a red-alert problem. Next Tuesday morning, I have to check into the hospital for a series of tests. They say I’ve got a tumor of some sort.
Frankly, I’m scared.
I thought some sort of blessing might help. I don’t mean a blessing that promises I’ll get better or anything like that. Just one that makes me feel like I’m not going through this alone. I thought maybe I’d ask Brother Phillips if he’d give me one: there’s something fatherly about him.
I feel pretty silly, actually, standing here at Brother Phillips’s office door. This is not the sort of thing I usually do. But I want a blessing.
“Come in, come in.” Brother Phillips opens his door and greets me. When he smiles, his cheeks turn into small apples.
“How are you, Brenda?” he says.
“Okay,” I reply, looking around his office. It’s the first time I’ve ever been inside. It’s filled with books and old family pictures of people who look like characters on Leave It to Beaver reruns. His children, I think, must be all grown up and gone away by now. Did they ever ask him for blessings?
“What can I do for you?” he asks after inviting me to sit down.
Now that I’m here, I feel really stupid. I don’t know how to ask him for what I want.
“Well,” I begin, “I’m going into the hospital Tuesday morning.”
Brother Phillips draws his bristle brush brows together in concern. Encouraged by his silent sympathy, I go on. “Anyway, I want to know if you would mind giving me a blessing or something. It doesn’t have to be long or fancy.”
Brother Phillips looks at me for a moment, then presses his fingertips together and leans back in his swivel chair.
“I could do that,” he says slowly.
I wait. He doesn’t move.
“Brenda,” he says finally, “have you asked your father to give you a blessing?”
This is certainly a ball of the curved variety. I’m taken totally by surprise. “Well, no,” I confess.
“I see.” Pause. “Do you think perhaps you ought to go to him before you come to me?”
I can’t believe this. Brother Phillips knows that my father isn’t active in the Church.
“I don’t know,” I begin to stammer. “I guess I just thought that—” The memory of Allison, her perfect little mouth forming the words not worthy, jumps up like a puppet before my eyes, and with it the same old feelings of shame and rage return for an encore. “My father can’t give me a blessing!” I blurt out.
Brother Phillips shrugs. “Well, maybe not a formal blessing. But every parent has a prayer for his child. Go home, Brenda. Ask your father to tell you what’s in his heart for you. I know your father. He’s a good man.”
I leave feeling embarrassed, even a little angry that I didn’t get what I came for. All the same, though, I feel oddly comforted. Brother Phillips’s words “I know your father” play reel-to-reel through my mind.
Yes. And I know my father, too. I’ve lived with him for 16 years. I’ve seen him talk silly to the babies, play Candyland with my brothers without looking bored, scream at me to stay away from a live wire. I think he’s the kind of man who would have a prayer for his children.
Allison is standing at the bus stop looking perfect. I’ll say this for all those baton lessons—they sure gave Allison good posture.
“Hi, Allison,” I say, joining her.
We don’t say anything for a minute. Then she says, “I’m really sorry that you have to go to the hospital.” I can tell by looking at her face that she does feel bad. I smile at her.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
I think about this for a minute. Then I shake my head.
She drops her voice so none of the other kids will hear. “I’ll say a prayer for you, at least.”
“Yes,” I say slowly. “A prayer would be nice.”