I was seven years old when my mother lost her last baby teeth. She was 32. I remember sitting at our dining room table and my mother striding in from the kitchen, then stopping. She put her thumbs in her mouth, gingerly touching each incisor. “Uh-oh,” she said. “My teeth are loose.” She wiggled her baby fangs, smaller than the rest of her teeth.
My mother and I were losing teeth at the same time! We were going through a childhood rite of passage together. The only difference was that my falling teeth were followed by visits from the tooth fairy, and hers by trips to the dentist to get fakes to replace adult teeth that were never going to come in.
In time, the family condition caught up with me. I was 10 when those same baby teeth came loose in my own mouth, with no permanent teeth underneath. I had to get a false tooth attached to my braces. Then at 11 I had a little operation to pull the other incisor down into my mouth from way up in my gums, or my head, wherever it was, tucked up in my sinuses, or my brain. I’ve heard of tumors that can grow teeth and hair within their amorphous masses. Teeth are strange, lawless little things that can grow in all the wrong places.
Eventually, when my braces came off, I had a bridge put in like my mother’s. Little metal wings stick the fake tooth to the two real teeth on either side. I walk around in my adult life waiting for the glue to become unstuck. Where will I be, I wonder, when the bridge inevitably falls out? A PTA meeting? Pulling out my own child’s teeth?
After college, I went to a dentist for a checkup near where I lived in Brooklyn. I knew someone who lived above his office; she called him the “rentist.”
“Wow,” the rentist said when he checked my bridge. Then he said that since I had fewer teeth than the vast majority of people it meant that I was “highly evolved.” Fancy that. (Actually, it’s a genetic condition called hypodontia.) People with fewer teeth and less hair, according to him, were the future of the human race. A sleeker, smoother, less ferocious version of our atavistic selves, who would run wild through primeval forests, on the hunt, shaggy hair flying, like gaping, growling vestigial tumors.
I thought of my mother, with an extra missing incisor and fine, thin, straight hair. So she is as powerful as she would have us believe.
Naturally, I expected that my sons, being one generation more evolved than me, would also have a long wait for the tooth fairy. Imagine my surprise when I got a text from their Dad a short while ago: “C has a loose tooth!”
I was shocked. First because I’m usually there for every little thing my five-year-old does, for good or ill, and now I miss a major milestone whilst sitting in an Indian restaurant with a friend. As I picked up a samosa I felt a little woozy. I had a visceral reaction to the idea of these strange bones wobbling around his head.
I made it home just as C was settling into his bed. He let me put my finger in his little mouth and feel the front bottom tooth wiggle. “The tooth fairy is going to come soon!” I told him, a maniacal smile on my face. “Who’s the tooth fairy?” he asked.
I stroked his head as C fell asleep, untroubled by the tooth and the threats of paranormal nighttime visitors. I touched his cheek. But he just got these teeth! I thought. And they’re going already?
I closed the door to his room and went back down the dark stairs into the lighted kitchen, guns blazing. “Tomorrow we have to pull that tooth. It’s ready to come out. I feel queasy just thinking about it,” I said to his dad.
“Why?” he said. “What’s the rush?”
“What do you mean, ‘what’s the rush?’ We can’t just leave it hanging in there!”
“Why are you getting so excited about this? It will just fall out on its own, when its ready.”
Fall out when it’s ready? That’s not the way it was done in my family. I knew my sisters would understand. I texted them about C’s tooth, and they both responded: “Don’t tell Crair.”
Our family is filled with stories of teeth that have been waylaid up in our heads or gone permanently missing. But when one of us gets a long-awaited loose tooth, it is removed post-haste. You’d think we’d want to enjoy it, let it hang out for a while. No. In our Italian family, our grandmother, whose teeth were most often found in a water-filled jar, or our aunt Crair (actually Elda Pia, which was Americanized to Claire, which became Crair in broken English) was summoned.
They were witch doctors for loose teeth. I still squirm when I think of myself at Crair’s house: steamy from bubbling pots on the stove, the telegiornale blaring, a thumb wrapped in a handkerchief bounding toward me. A sharp yank downwards. A dull, knee-weakening pain. The handkerchief shoved in to stop the blood.
I asked my husband, “This never happened to you?”
“No, that’s not how normal people do it. My parents never pulled out my teeth. I would just do it myself. When it was really loose, I would just lift it out.” He moved his fingers like he was plucking a crocus. “Your family is weird.” Oh, really, you think my family is weird? I’ve never heard that before. ‘Mericani, I muttered. Just letting teeth flail about, instead of being proactive about it.
A few days passed, and the tooth was still dangling from C’s gums at all sorts of odd angles. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took matters into my own hands. He was at the dining room table waiting for an afterschool snack.
“Sssooo…do you want an apple? ” I asked him. He would. Super! Such a simple snack. I grabbed one from the kitchen, ran it under the tap, and proffered it to him in an enticing Lightning McQueen napkin.
“Is it fresh from the farm?” he asked. Kids these days.
“Oh yes.” I nodded innocently. “Enjoy, son.”
I went about my business. Then I heard, “What’s this?” On the napkin was a tiny morsel of white, with a bright red tip. Was it a bit of apple?
I was delighted. I picked him up and carried him around, making a fuss. I took pictures of the tooth, and his new smile, and sent them around. I talked up the tooth fairy, big time. C himself was a bit confused. “That red on the tooth is from the apple, right?” Sure it is. And then he moved on, to cars, Legos, pestering his little brother, who had eaten the remainder of the apple, seeds and all, when I was carrying on about the tooth.
I remember thinking, when C was a newborn, that once he sat up, or rolled over, I would never see him the same way again. He would become a totally different person to me. And now, with this tooth, and another one that fell out the following day at a Chinese restaurant, mid-dumpling (we never found it: presumed swallowed), it was the same. He was shedding his skin, and becoming a new, older boy, right before my eyes. As I parent I would need to catch up, again, and quickly morph into the mother of a genuine schoolboy, not a toddler, not a preschooler anymore.
Peeking in his mouth, I see a new tooth has already erupted; the baby tooth had no choice but to flee. Through these long days that make up life with little children, when it takes what seems like days to put on shoes and get out the door, they evolve so quickly into big, independent people. It’s like watching a time-elapsed video of a flower blooming. I try to keep up, but I know that one day, like the dinosaurs, I’ll be left behind by the march of time.
Even so, I am anxious for change to happen. I think of all the times I would prop up the boys up to sit, or roll them over, or wiggle C’s loose teeth. Though I love the boys how they are now, I know it’s my end game to see them through.
My mother was there as C’s second tooth came out in the restaurant. She looked over at him a little wistfully. “I’m still waiting for the tooth fairy,” she said.