I am happy to report that the mystery of Aunt Thelma's missing false teeth — or dentures, if you prefer — has been solved. You won't believe where they turned up after a four-month search, but I'm not about to give away the ending up front.
When you are 91, as Aunt Thelma will be on April 6, you can't deny the toll the years have taken on your body and mind. She gets around with the help of a cane, keeps her handgun handy and lives alone on a rural road near Homer, Ga., a small town without a single traffic light. She spends most of her day baking pies and cakes and making Brunswick stew and feeding the stray dogs that always seem to find her back door. She is fortunate to have family members nearby to take her to Wal-Mart to buy groceries and to pick up her medicine from the pharmacy in Homer.
At her age, it's easy to get confused about little things. She struggles to remember whether she took her heart and diabetes medicine in the morning or ever got around to paying her electricity bill or sending off her burial insurance premium.
Losing your teeth is a big deal in her world. Hers went missing around Thanksgiving and it put a crimp in her holiday season. For weeks she lived on mostly oranges and popsicles and whatever soft food she could gum. But the worst of it was knowing her teeth had to be somewhere in the house and not being able to find them.
She put out the word that she was offering a $100 reward to anyone who found her teeth. Nephews and nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, searched every inch of her small house.
They went through her three large freezers, digging through packages of frozen food she had put away from her garden. It made sense. She is always leaning into the freezers looking for okra or whatever, and I can see how her teeth might have fallen out of her mouth.
The freezer search was futile.
They went through the house room by room. They removed everything from her kitchen cabinets and even the refrigerator. They looked under beds and chairs and tables. They even looked in her washing machine.
Alas, the teeth were not to be found. But she let the reward stand to keep hope alive.
After the New Year holiday, Aunt Thelma finally came to terms with her loss and decided she had no choice but to purchase a new set of teeth. With her new choppers, the old girl treated herself to some boiled pig feet and everyone moved on with their lives.
Then, one day last week, there was a death in the community and Aunt Thelma prepared to send food to the home of the bereaved family. She started digging through her freezers looking for her best pound cakes and pies. The ones she thinks measure up to her standards are labeled "good'' and dated, and these are the ones she sends to any event where she thinks her reputation as an acclaimed baker could be on the line.
The pound cake she pulled from the freezer was a good one indeed.
When she removed the foil-wrapped cake from the plastic bag she kept it in, the mystery was solved. There, on top of the pound cake, were her missing teeth, frozen but otherwise undamaged. She thawed out the teeth and slipped them into her mouth. They still fit perfectly.
She has no idea how her teeth wound up as a cake decoration. That mystery may never be solved. But at least the teeth didn't fall into the cake batter. Imagine if someone had bitten into a piece of pound cake and the cake had bitten back.
So there is a God in the heavens after all, and daily life, with all its struggles, great and small, is now a little easier for Aunt Thelma.
Meanwhile, one of the budget cuts Florida lawmakers are considering would end vision, hearing and dental care for about 146,000 seniors who are covered by Medicaid.
This greatly bothers Rep. Aaron Bean, chairman of the House Health Care Council. "If you don't have teeth, it's a big deal that you do have teeth,'' he said. "I'm bummed out about that.''
Aunt Thelma can empathize. As she put it, you don't appreciate your teeth until you can't find them.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.