Seh Woo, My Teeth by Kerissa Dickie
2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Kerissa Dickie has made the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Seh Woo, My Teeth.
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will be announced on Sept. 22. They will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and will attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2023 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.
You can read Seh Woo, My Teeth below.
This story contains strong language.
We gave her caramels because it made her dentures stick together, and then we tickled her. She would squirm with muffled laughter and shoo us away. We asked her to say the word "oxo" because it came out of her mouth as "asshole," and after she would cover a giggle with her hand. She didn't normally swear, but she enjoyed making us laugh.
She sat in her little sewing chair, a fluffy dark brown faux fur chair that rotated in circles, pushing and pulling needles of sinew in and out of moose hide with her knotted fingers and would randomly recite, "I'm going downtown to smoke my pipe, I won't be back 'til Saturday night." She was our Etsoo, our grandmother, and being silly was necessary in this life.
There were so many kids at my grandparents' house during the day that she would need to employ unique methods like tying wayward children down to furniture or outdoor fixtures. She would tie me and my cousin Cheyenne to the feet of the couch with a long swath of fabric circled around our waists, while she napped on the couch. She tied my younger sister to the back porch when she needed to cut meat by her smokehouse. We laugh because it was necessary and it never hurt. Etsoo was never mean and always had candies in her purse to quiet our tantrums.
She was our Etsoo, our grandmother, and being silly was necessary in this life.
Adeline was born in the bush, at Fish Lake on New Year's Day, 1930. She spent her childhood playing in the forest, catching frogs and mice, caring for them and making them little homes in the dirt and grass. This connection allowed her to tap into medicine inherited from her grandfather — dream medicine — and for the rest of her life she would be given visions of future life events like new babies, illness and deaths, while she slept.
In Dene culture, the Nahtay are dreamers sought after for guidance. It isn't something openly discussed but it gave Etsoo a sense of stability in an unpredictable world and helped her feel strongly connected to loved ones who passed on. The deaths of three of her children and several grandchildren seemed to bow her heart and back with lead weight, but she knew she would be with them again.
Etsoo was under five feet tall, and topped with tightly permed, fluffy curls. She had hooded eyes behind thick, round glasses that sat atop high cheekbones, and sculpted nose. She wore flowered button-up shirts and jewel-toned cardigans, and the same low-heeled shoes both to work on hide near her smokehouse and to hitchhike later to Bingo. She always looked like she was in a hurry, with the buttons of her shirt so often out of sync, one hem sitting longer than the other; posture always taut; eyes quick to every periphery; hands stirring meat with thimbles on her fingers.
She started to learn and speak English in her early 40s — at the same time she was forced to have her teeth removed due to decay and get dentures. They were improperly fitted and the pain was constant, and it affected her speech. It was as if the flat, dense English words dug into her gums. She took her teeth out every night before she went to sleep and soaked them in a little plastic case, dropping them in so little floaties sprang forth as they landed, floating like dust motes in sunlight.
Etsoo was a big believer in luck, and that you needed to be fully prepared to best receive it.
I loved being around her. As a kid, I even joined her to help with janitorial work at reserve buildings in the evenings, spraying desks with lemon Pledge and then polishing them to a high sheen. I accompanied her to bingo so often I became accustomed to the thick haze of smoke that hung in the hall and learned the rhythms and rules of the game. We learned to focus on each ball being popped from the swirling, humming cauldron of bingo balls, each fingered and held straight and then introduced by the caller, and how you lined up your cards vertically so each column could be easily skimmed over in a long, smooth track as you searched for the number under the appropriate letter. Etsoo was a big believer in luck, and that you needed to be fully prepared to best receive it; there was a time for talking and joking, and there was a time to stay quiet and attentive and devoted to the bingo gods.
Living in a very small, isolated town meant a lot of road trips to civilization. Etsoo was my backseat travel companion — I read comics and she beaded kehtah in her lap. The best road trip memory was when we crossed the Yukon border into Alaska. My mom announced to us in the back seat that we were now in the U.S. and Etsoo looked over at me anxiously. Just then, a piece of plywood flew out of a truck's box in front of us and smacked into our windshield. Etsoo let out an "Ooo!" and tried to dive down behind the seat but was caught by her seatbelt. "They shoot us!" All she knew of the U.S. was from TV, most of it being soap operas. Oh, Etsoo.
Being with her was a freedom for me that I could never fully understand until I was older. I saw and knew more of her than my own mother, who worked long hours at the Band Office trying to make the world a better place for my community.
Being with her was a freedom for me that I could never fully understand until I was older.
My mom had grown up being taught by her father that achievement and community service were vital facets of life; she measured her value according to her scope of knowledge, her ability to be an advocate for those could not speak, and her service to others. She did not know affection or silliness or bare vulnerability, and as my single mother for the first six years of my life — we settled into a pattern of disconnection that would make my overly sensitive and emotional brain doubt the worth of my existence, heightened by dealing with bullies and growing social alienation in school. And when I acted out, she couldn't understand what kind of validation I was asking for or how to give me more of herself when she was already spread thin.
Etsoo was different — older, and more relaxed perhaps, but always open to my silliness and responsive to my presence. She had so much skill, so much knowledge, and so many stories, and I was the perfect chubby-cheeked sidekick who loved to make her laugh, could speak perfect English to help communicate with customers for her home business Adeline's Native Handicrafts, and I was happy to get paid in snacks. It was kismet. To this day, decades from being a child, I can close my eyes and feel myself curled into the couch by Etsoo's chair listening to the sound of a sinewed needle being pushed and pulled through moosehide and feel all over again like this woman held my world straight and solid.
We didn't lose her quickly; we lost her bit by bit, slowly. She battled heart disease, her back was in constant pain, she could only hear partially from one ear and needed special headphones to hear anyone's voice and she became blind in one eye and lost most of the sight in the other eye. She couldn't sew anymore and it tore something away from her that had always given her purpose and the income she raised her kids with. She walked slowly, slept as much as she could, and grew more reluctant to leave the house. She acted so unlike herself. Then she just stopped eating, something that she had always enjoyed with gusto.
I've never known a world without Etsoo; she has been a part of my whole life; wearing me wrapped in a blanket across her back as an infant while she cooked at the stove.
I've never known a world without Etsoo; she has been a part of my whole life; wearing me wrapped in a blanket across her back as an infant while she cooked at the stove and skinning wolverine while I toddled around the kitchen with glee. Trips to stay with me in Victoria while I was attending University, when she let me do her makeup and pencil-in surprised eyebrows that made us howl with laughter. My bachelorette party where she danced to Thriller with us in a sticky karaoke bar; and holding my newborn baby, named Nahtay in her honour, and looking down at him with wide, amazed eyes. She told me that having my son was the best thing that could ever happen, because being his mom would finally make me happy.
My birthday, May 8, 2021, arrived sunny and warm. My mom braided my hair before going to check on my Etsoo at lunchtime, who she was told was having trouble getting up. She called me 20 minutes later, telling me flatly to come to Etsoo's house. I loaded my toddler into the vehicle and drove down the road to her house. Etsoo had died in her little bed.
Before the ambulance took her away, we were allowed to go into her room, one by one, to say goodbye. I sat and stood and waited for my turn, and walked slowly around the living room, amazed by the way death changed nothing about the family pictures and clock ticking on the walls. Shocked at how little the world seemingly noticed any one of us, not shuddering or darkening when the foundation of our lives crumbled and disappeared off the face of the earth. I was so angry that I had to say goodbye on my knees, but I was careful not to let any tears drip down onto her, so her new journey would not be clouded.
In this life, where we are made up of the people who love us and who give our lives meaning, Etsoo is seh woo— my teeth.
In this life, where we are made up of the people who love us and who give our lives meaning, Etsoo is seh woo — my teeth. Because of her I can speak English and Dene words alike, smile big and bright, chew any unknown I am faced with down to its grist, and taste all the goodness in the world. Without seh woo, every exposed nerve of my bared gums jangles to the touch; I can't bite or chew anything to taste its true center, and I must swallow everything whole; my ability to communicate with others and to speak out loud is changed because of the grief I feel for my broken smile.
I think of Etsoo's teeth, the tiny chips in their porcelain, cut while she chewed marrow out of bones and bit down on hard candy while she dabbed on Bingo cards; the way she could loosen them from her gums, and drop them into a glass with a fizzing tablet and then pull them out shiny and new. The way so much was taken from her in this life, but how she filled the voids with her own hard work and artistry to gain purpose, self-esteem and freedom to explore the strange new world that had built up around her unbidden. How her upper lip formed into the curves of a heart over her teeth when she laughed out loud.
And I wonder if they are buried with her now, and if she is somehow imprinted on their surface. I like to imagine that someday a technology will exist that could play over the edges of her teeth like a needle on a record player and capture a soft loop of her voice, her laughter when she cackled deep, and her pronunciation of "oxo" from the set of her molars. And I realize how lucky I am to have known and loved her for so long and so completely that when I close my eyes — I can hear her voice alive inside me.
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About Kerissa Dickie
Kerissa Dickie is Dene from Fort Nelson First Nation, a community across the river valley from the town of Fort Nelson, B.C. Her passion for writing was stoked while helping create a book of stories by residential school survivors in her community. Afterwards, she immediately enrolled at the University of Victoria to continue to hone her craft. She won a national writing award just before graduating with her BFA that brought her to Ottawa. She saw her writing published in anthologies Initiations: A Selection of Young Native Writings and Impact: Colonialism in Canada and in magazines and newspapers such as Beaver and Windspeaker. Dickie is currently working on her memoir, and this story Seh Woo, My Teeth is an excerpt.
The story's source of inspiration
"As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt like I needed to create a place where my grandmother was still sitting beside me."
The winner of the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.