I found a note under my 9-year-old’s pillow:
Dear Tooth Farie,
Would you mind if I could have my tooth, the one that was split in half, back for tomaro? I would be very happy and would bring it back the next night. Inside this box is a half Dollar.
Please and hopefully thank you.
My daughter watched me as I read the scrap of paper. She herself had apparently forgotten the note; her request had been suffocating there under the striped pillow for days. Whatever box there had been was gone.
The tooth in question had indeed been neatly bisected when the dentist extracted it to make room for grown-up teeth in Mary’s crowded mouth. She had recalled this tooth to my attention last week. In school they were studying teeth and their layers: the enamel on the outside, the dentin and the pulp buried within. Mary, a lover of science, was eager to use her two-piece tooth for show-and-tell. It would have been a great adjunct to the diagram she had brought home from science class. Problem was, she didn’t have it anymore, and neither did I.
“Did it work?” I asked. “Did you get your tooth back?”
“Oh, that,” she replied casually. “No. I guess it doesn’t work that way.”
I thought about this for a moment. How does it work? Here we were, mother and child, at the intersection of science and myth. Her tooth fairy request was incongruous with her drive for scientific enlightenment. Which side was I to take?
I wanted to help my daughter figure this out, to pursue logically what had happened or had failed to happen. But what is a mother to do at a moment like this? I did what I could. I pointed out that her note had been friendly and polite and that she had both promised to return the tooth and had surrendered compensation. Aside from some spelling mistakes, it seemed like she had made a good argument.
I went further. “Come to think of it, Mary, how would the Tooth Fairy know to come here to your pillow? You hadn’t left a tooth, after all. I never thought about this before. Does she come and check every pillow every night, or does she just come when she knows there’s a tooth waiting to be picked up?”
Mary looked at me, then back at the pillow, thinking. I watched her intently, imagining the wheels and gears turning in her brain.
“But then,” I forged ahead, “how does she know when there’s a tooth?”
Mary’s eyebrows furrowed momentarily, and then they arched above her large brown eyes. She said, “I think she must sense the lost teeth, like an animal senses its prey. She must only come when a tooth is there under the pillow.”
“Either that,” said my husband, his footsteps creaking from the hall into Mary’s room, “or the Tooth Fairy doesn’t know how to read.”
We turned to look at him, nodding and letting that hypothesis settle a bit. Good point. It was certainly true that no notes had ever been required in other more typical dental-pecuniary transactions. By this logic, the Tooth Fairy may indeed have seen the note but had not known how to interpret its squiggles. I liked this theory; it was a metaphor for the inscrutability of the thought process of my oldest child.
We stood there looking at each other, the various analyses (minus one) of the situation laid out in the open. A smile played on Mary’s lips. Was it my imagination, or was she amused by the discussion? And I wondered then: In her mind, were we talking straight here, or was this a circuitous exercise around an elephant in the room? I couldn’t be sure who, if anyone, was playing along with whom.
“Well,” I said finally, “I guess you’d better get back to your homework.” And so the issue was tabled and the mystery allowed to drift again.
This had not been the first time Mary had experienced a communications breakdown with the Tooth Fairy. Sometime around last Christmas she had lost a tooth, maybe her sixth or seventh. The loss had not occasioned the momentous excitement that the first two or three had.
Those first teeth had been a big deal. Mary had been eager for her teeth to fall out just so that she could tuck them into her special new purple drawstring sack with tassels. It had come with a book about the Tooth Fairy, which we read over and over with fascination.
Her inaugural discovery of a Sacagawea golden dollar in the purple sack had been a tremendous surprise, giving her truncated new grin plenty of practice. We made interstate telephone calls announcing the news to grandparents, and Mary took the fancy coin to school to show her friends. But by tooth #7, Mary had misplaced the purple tooth satchel, and the magic of the exchange had been rendered down to its essential components: fee for product.
So now, that December night, what could she use instead to deliver her tooth to its collector? Mary pestered me to devise a substitute tooth holder, this when I was on bedtime patrol solo. I was deeply mired in the typical evening chaos: the boys’ footsteps were thundering on the second floor overhead, the baby needed a change and a bath, dishes and crumbs were still all over the kitchen from dinner, and clean pajamas were taking their last tardy tumble in the dryer. Everyone needed a story and their fingernails trimmed.
All the while Mary was following me around, asking repeatedly, “Mom, what can I put my tooth in?”
Distracted and in haste I grabbed the thing nearest at hand: a tiny Christmas stocking ornament. It was approximately the right size, and soft like the original fairy sack. In my haste I also forgot to mention this dilemma to her father, who would fall into bed after his late shift sometime after midnight. He in particular would have been able to provide an authoritative opinion on what the Tooth Fairy would deem an acceptable alternative receptacle.
As it turned out, Mary scrambled into our room early the next morning with big, sad, inevitable news.
“Mom, Dad! The Tooth Fairy didn’t come last night!” What a sight she was, standing there dejectedly in her old nightgown that was way too small for her. I felt my cheeks flush. My mind raced guiltily toward a solution. How could I explain the Tooth Fairy’s failure? We were bad parents.
But then I also considered: I knew moms who were beginning to reveal some of the secrets of womanhood to their daughters, some of Mary’s taller, more rapidly developing classmates. Those brave moms were already tackling the tough issues of preadolescence. Thankfully, Mary wasn’t there yet; our conversations had remained relatively light and uncomplicated. I certainly wasn’t in any hurry for her to grow up faster than necessary, but maybe the time had come to share a few secrets of my own with this girl. The scientist in her would appreciate my forthrightness, I thought. Motioning for Mary to climb up into our bed, I slipped my arm around her thin waist and turned to face her sincere gaze. Time to fess up.
As I opened my mouth to launch a delicate preamble, John interrupted.
“What happened, Mary?” he began, the steadiness of his voice indicating to me that he had guessed what I was about to say and was heading me off.
“The Tooth Fairy didn’t come,” Mary answered quietly, and all of a sudden, talking to her daddy, she seemed little again.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” he said with feeling. “Why do you think that happened?”
Poor Mary paled. She launched into a hasty explanation of the loss of her proper Tooth Fairy accoutrement. “I couldn’t find the special bag, Dad, so I used an ornament. It’s soft,” she pointed out plaintively, producing the tiny red fur stocking with its little tooth still inside.
“What?” John exclaimed. “That’s your problem right there. You used a Christmas stocking for the Tooth Fairy. Why would you do that? The Tooth Fairy doesn’t get involved with Christmas stuff. She steers clear; it’s none of her business.”
He was an evil genius. Put it on the girl. Relieved and grateful, I jumped in: “It’s my fault. I gave Mary the stocking to use, but you are right. We must have confused the fairy.” John risked a glance at me, his eyes twinkling.
Mary’s face relaxed. She appreciated the logic of this reasoning immediately. The relative gruffness of her father’s delivery was tempered by the great news that all was not lost. She could still make the exchange. All she would have to do is come up with a better tooth pouch and try again tonight. All was still right with her 8-year-old world, and John’s clever intercession had preserved that world for us a little while longer, too. Clearly, I was not the only one having trouble letting a little girl grow up.
There is a time and place for parents’ collusion with customary deception. The Tooth Fairy may be the best example of this. Children face the loss of their first milk teeth right around the time that they venture out into the world of school, when huge chunks of time are spent away from home, away from what is comfortable and familiar. My kids traipsed happily off to their teachers with hardly a backward glance, but I’ve seen kindergarten and even first-grade teachers have to physically peel children off their moms and carry them, crying convulsively, into the building.
Add to this drama the notion of parts of your body dropping away like spent leaves. For a first grader, everything is changing, from the structure of their days to the composition of their very smiles. The tradition of the Tooth Fairy can diffuse some of that anxiety, giving kids something fun to look forward to in exchange for those lost chompers—a little magic, a little money. A child doesn’t even mind the blood he sees the first time, the raw socket where the pearly white used to be, because, Hey! The Tooth Fairy is finally coming to me!
Now that Mary is 9 and in fourth grade, I feel a little guilty about perpetuating folklore as reality. Is my daughter afraid of letting go of these mythologies? How do I let her know it will be okay when she follows that compelling logic within her, when she listens to the voice of reason in her own head that tells her what must be—and what must not be? How will I communicate to her that losing her teeth and her fairies won’t hurt too badly, that the world contains enough surprises to fill those empty places to overflowing?
The answer must be that it is already happening. The day I stood reading that scrap of paper I could feel it: the acquiescence. Mary seemed to be simply giving up on the note and its receiver. Perhaps without even meaning to, she was letting me know that it is okay that she is growing up. She seemed to instinctively sense that there was nothing more to look for there under her pillow. I think she was all right with it. Now if I could just be all right with it, too.
Gina Vozenilek lives and writes in Park Ridge, Illinois. She is the managing editor of Sport Literate, a biannual magazine that explores life’s leisurely diversions through poetry and creative nonfiction. Visit SL at www.sportliterate.org.