When a smile is not okay

It took at least twelve months to darken but the gold cap remained constant.  I was told that it had been bleached, which I’d assumed in my youthful naivety meant it would remain pearly white.  How wrong I was.

As young child growing up on a wheat farm in the Wimmera we loved playing outdoors.  Rounders seemed the perfect game for three primary school aged sisters and a sheepdog – one to bowl, one to hit, the dog and the third to chase. That was until I,running toward first base, a concrete step, tripped and fell head first.

The dentist was reluctant to do anything major to my front tooth until I was eighteen. Instead, he took the nerve out, added a gold cap and insisted that bleaching, a new innovative solution, would last until I was old enough to have a crown.

When it was time for a photograph, I pursed my lips tight. When someone said ‘cheese’, I’d grit my teeth. I didn’t want anyone to see my front tooth let alone take a photo. As a teenager, I felt self-conscious with my black rimmed glasses and a self-inflicted, disfigurement that seemed to grow darker each year.  It didn’t look attractive and made me feel even less so.

At boarding school my front tooth gloom was amplified when I was referred to as ‘Julie with the chip.’ The full version, in schoolgirl banter went like this: ‘Lyn with the pin and Julie with the chip’. Each time I heard it my stomach coiled but I remained mute and internalised: ‘If you remember this, why can’t you remember that Lyn has a hair-pin and I have a fringe?’  As twins, many boarders struggled to tell the difference between us and this taunt became our salutation.

Whenever a photo was taken of my father he always froze. He would stand erect, broad shoulders fronted the camera, but never a smile, and he continued to do so with the advent of digital cameras.  I always imagined it was his army training or that he was trapped in the mid twentieth century when photos were staged and you stood erect not moving for a number of seconds because film was precious.

But I digress.  Today I went into the Post Office and handed the staff a passport sized photograph that I’d used for my International Drivers Licence with forms for a ‘Working with Children’ permit.  As a crisis telephone counsellor for eighteen years this was another new mandatory requirement expected of volunteer phone workers.

The post office member looked at my photograph and then at me and shrugged. ‘Sorry, this won’t do, you can’t smile and your lips must be sealed’.  As I wandered home my mind drifted back to my school days and my tooth.

Rummaging through my top drawer I find two old passports alongside my current one.  I open the oldest dated 1990 and search out my photo. My hair’s dark and it’s a whole lot shorter, I’m beaming with teeth glowing.  I look again and realise for the first time how much I look like my elder sister.  She died at the age of 20 in a car accident and my memory and her image stood still on that day.  I’m deeply moved and mesmerised by this photo.

The second photo, ten years later, looks more corporate – lips loosely touch, there’s lots of lipstick and more than a modicum of make-up. Hair is short and eyes glaze into the lens.

In the current one, my hair hugs the shoulders, wrinkles wend lines framing my sealed lips and my eyes have a vacant stare.  I stop and compare it to the photo I’d submitted hours before where I look alive, eyes sing and happiness radiates from my smile.  I bemoan those years when I’d got into the habit of not smiling for photos and the folly of the dead-pan expression required for photographs of telephone counsellors.