The tooth of the matter

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


The total tonnage of my parental incompetence is staggering.

Take, for instance, my performance as Tooth Fairy. I snickered at an essay we published a few years back in which a mother described her and her husband’s blundering attempts to cover for their failure to replace their child’s baggied incisor with the much anticipated financial reward. They managed that first slip-up just fine, but submitted themselves to humiliating scrutiny when they forgot — gasp! — a second time.

Naturally I knew such a thing would never happen to me. How could I forget something as simple as sliding a dollar under my child’s pillow and whisking the old tooth into the depths of some collaborative trash can? Yet today, as the oldest three of my children push out their choppers with deplorable frequency, I’d say I’m batting about 1 for 18 in prompt dollar delivery.

I still haven’t found the last tooth my son left under his pillow. It plain disappeared, eluding my nonchalant search of his pillow case, the baseboards and the underside of his bed. It floats, I am certain, along with innumerable tube socks and old Halloween candy somewhere outside the Van Allen Belt of the bedroom he shares with his two brothers.

I know now that it will return from that infuriating orbit and fall into his hands, not mine. Or worse, it will be discovered by his younger sister, whose faith in this magical tooth-for-cash exchange is yet pristine, or by our toddler, who would walk around the house yelling “Look what I found!” at 120 decibels, or by our infant, who might mistake it for a fragment of peppermint or a piece of nose jewelry.

What do I call this? Is it a mental block, like the way I can’t ever remember at the end of a shower whether I used shampoo? Or may I pardon myself as having exceeded the limits of modern multitasking, building my case on work preoccupations, the hours of paperwork sent home from my children’s two schools, my determination not to cede all housework to my equally belabored wife?

Nope. It’s incompetence. Like the time three weeks ago when I forgot to pick the toddler up from his morning preschool, or just last night when I fell into bed and ignored that still, small voice reminding me that I hadn’t yet set the alarm. That voice was clear and unmistakable. It politely allowed me to make my choice until 8:03 this morning, when it roused me with 17 minutes to get the kids to school. Needless to say, this didn’t happen.

Well-meaning parents everywhere, you have my sympathy. Did you forget to tuck 50 cents into your trusting son’s pocket for popcorn day? Done it. Struggled to counsel your daughter on how to handle the annoying classmate who bumps into her at recess and hovers too close while she’s working? Me, too.

I can claim one recent victory, though, and I have the God-given gift of self-deprecation to thank for it. My oldest son sat frozen in bed one morning with his newfound fear of snakes. Never mind that he’d only once seen a snake —years ago — outside captivity, or that it was a harmless garter. Some satanic serpent had carried off a hapless, thuggish rat in the book he’d been reading the night before, and the fear my son felt was real.

I thought a moment and let a smile cross my face as genius flashed for once in my head. “Well, I guess you have something in common with Indiana Jones,” I said.

To my relief his body relaxed a little. “Well, I guess you have something in common with Ron Weasley,” he replied, now smiling. He was referring to my irrational fear of spiders and that red-headed pal of Harry Potter who shares it. Between the two, I’d rather be like Indiana Jones, and I said so.

He agreed and laughed and hopped out of bed. And I barely got the kids to school on time.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.