By Anne Brinser Shelton
Long before I had the privilege of tip-toeing into a sleeping child’s room late at night and swapping out a tooth that had fallen out earlier in the day with shiny coins or a glitter-sprayed dollar bill, more than one been-there-done-that mom had imparted to me that eventually, no matter how sentimental your intentions, there comes a day when you stumble across a stash of your kids’ baby teeth, wonder what the heck you’re keeping them for and toss them out.
Naturally, I didn’t believe a word of it.
Yet half a dozen or so years—and presumably 40 visits from the Tooth Fairy, between my two daughters—later, the teeth, they are everywhere. Ziploc baggies holding individual incisors fall out of the kitchen cabinet when I reach for the first aid kit. Some are marked with the child’s name and date, some not. Similar baggies that never got properly stashed show up at the bottom of dresser drawers or old purses. Sometimes there aren’t even baggies.
My older daughter, now 12, once found a free-floating molar in the drawer of my old home office desk. She suspiciously asked me what it might be doing there. I changed the subject and whisked it away, tucking it into the cabinet with so many others.
The thing is that by the time the Tooth Fairy made her last flight to our house, she’d made her fair share of bloopers. She’d gotten off to a strong start, of course, as Tooth Fairies almost always do. In the early days, she set to work attaching coins to clever little notes, sometimes leaving a sprinkling of sparkling glitter near the windowsill, never missing a beat. But even the best Tooth Fairies wear down after a while.
There were nights she was distracted by the stress of her day job, nearly forgetting to show up until just before the alarm clock was set to go off the next morning, leaving little time to do more than make the swap and stow away her treasure in the nearest hiding spot to be properly catalogued later. There were nights she’d been sick or had maybe had a wee bit too much chardonnay. There were nights she took loans from the kids’ own piggy banks because she was short on cash (she paid those back, right?).
Then there was the one infamous night she forgot to show up at all, but then managed to pull a fast one—after the kid had already gone to school—that was convincing enough to seem as if the money had just been overlooked in the morning. Which is to say, it’s really no wonder she got behind on properly curating her collection.
And yet, when I’m fiddling around for a checkbook and come across baggies of individual baby teeth, I can’t yet bring myself to just get rid of them. Marie Kondo would ask me if they “spark joy.” And in a way, they kind of do—or they used to anyway.
In the 2012 animated movie Rise of the Guardians, part of what the Tooth Fairy is guarding when she collects lost baby teeth are memories. Each tooth, the narrative goes, contains early childhood memories from the time each tooth first sprouts in a baby’s mouth until it loosens and falls out. The kind of memories that most of us forget as we grow even just a little bit older. I rather like the idea of that.
And these teeth, in their individual Ziploc bags, they hold my memories, too—my memories of what it was like being a new mom, cloudy from sleep deprivation, concerned and confused about how to comfort my babies when they were cranky because their teeth were are coming in. My memories of giving them new foods to bite into, bites of birthday cake and bananas to mush between fresh molars. My memories of wrangling toddler toothbrushes into tiny mouths and first trips to the dentist. The surprising emotional pang when your big kid first loses a tooth and it hits you like a load of bricks that she’s not a baby anymore.
That’s what the Tooth Fairy has always been there for, right? To make a situation that might otherwise seem a little traumatic turn suddenly lighthearted (and lucrative!).
While I’ll accept that I’ve reached the point of “Why the heck am I keeping these things?”, it doesn’t seem quite right to just toss these lost teeth in the trash (no matter how much I thanked them, with all due respect to Ms. Kondo).
It seems there should be some sort of ritual. Like we should bury them in the garden with flower seeds. Or make wishes on them and cast them into the ocean or a fresh-flowing stream. Or we should bundle them into a little pouch attached to helium balloons and launch them into the sky one sunny day (surely the creepiest find of a lifetime for whomever should come across the deflated balloons in an empty field some later date).
I’ve known from the day I first held my sweet babies in my arms that parenting is largely about letting go, in hopefully small increments over many, many years. Now what I need to let go of is the Tooth Fairy—and her hoard, too. I just haven’t quite decided how.
Anne Brinser Shelton is a writer living in Columbia, South Carolina. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Unsweetened Magazine, South Carolina Living and more. Her white wine sangria is neighborhood-famous.
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