My first dentist was, at the very best, thoughtless and crude. I won’t name him here, on the odd chance that he’s still alive and grew in compassion since I last saw him, sometime around 1962.

I thought of my early dentistry experiences a couple of days ago, when I sat under the comfortable ministrations of the Knox Dental Clinic. Mostly I thought of Dr. Thomason, the dentist I started seeing after my mother realized the first guy was making dental hygiene into a painful experience for her children.

Mom was a big fan of dental hygiene. She said that came from nursing two babies, in close succession, in a country where the only way to obtain dairy products was through an underground market that did its business in a language she did not understand. She lost all of her teeth in the four years between my brother’s birth and my weaning.

My childhood days started with the sound of her putting in a full set of false teeth that didn’t fit as well, in those early years, as did later versions. Between the gagging sound of the denture alarm in the mornings and her insistence that my brother and I brush and floss at day’s end, Mom’s misfortune became my good habits. Every six months, with few exceptions, I have my teeth cleaned by a professional.

On my first visit, Dr. Thomason told me that three of my teeth should come out. He showed me the tool he would use, a hook-shaped probe called a dental explorer, and waited until I said I was as ready, as the baby teeth that blocked the way of the adult ones waiting to grow in. There was no pain; any discomfort I might have felt in that chair was mild and has long been forgotten.

Dr. Thomason would sing and joke with his assistants, the first named Mary and later Mrs. Harper, always telling me what he was about to do ahead of time, always patient. The three of them saw me through grade school, my troubled middle school years and high school.

For more than 20 years Dr. Thomason, Mary and Mrs. Harper cared for my mouth. Eventually, he brought in a young apprentice with a winning personality, a diamond in one ear and a probe equipped with a camera. Watching the screen, I could see my mouth in all its magnified wonder. That view only increased my admiration of dental practitioners. Human mouths are kind of messy, even when they’re well cared for.

After we moved to Maine, and when the kids were just starting to grow their own teeth, we found Dr. Jane Bernier. Her office was in Camden and, like Dr. Thomason, she was patient, gentle and thoroughly professional. When she moved her practice to Belfast, we went along. I wore headphones through a root canal and, while it may have hurt some, I don’t remember that discomfort, either. When Dr. Bernier retired, it was time to find another dental practice.

Now, every six months, I sit in a very comfortable chair at the Knox Dental Clinic and let hygienist Ali Gaeth explore the pits and crevices of my teeth.

In some ways, dentistry changed a lot since Dr. Thomason yanked the last three baby teeth out of my nine-year-old jaw. A pleated paper cup is no longer set on a pedestal above a circular sink, where water swirls away whatever I expel. Now, a little vacuum hose takes the spit from my mouth. The magnifying glasses Ali wears are less “Revenge of the Nerds” and more “Grey’s Anatomy;” and the chair … ah, the chair. This is no ancient barber’s chair, but a spaceship recliner.

But the picks are still picks, the bite wing x-ray films awkward, the cleaning grout just as gritty and odd tasting as it ever was, and the drill – when it is needed – still sounds and feels the same.

I don’t see a dentist at every visit. As with most of life, things are too busy for that. Instead, I get kind, patient, careful attention on my semi-annual visits, and referrals to a dentist in Belfast for anything unusual. That’s about to change, I am told, since the Knox Clinic just hired a staff dentist and an assistant to help Ali with her work.

People often joke about the condition of rural people’s teeth. But pain in the mouth is nothing to laugh about. I don’t remember how it felt, sitting in that first dentist’s chair, but I remember my fear. I am grateful my mother persisted in finding a dentist who was not only efficient and technically adept, but kind.

For more information about the Knox County Health Clinic’s Dental Program, visit

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Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.