I found the small, brown envelope, no bigger than a matchbook, buried in the recesses of a sock drawer in my father’s bedroom bureau. The drawer, itself divided into six wooden corridors, each held neatly folded pairs of, respectively, dress or athletic socks. The envelope, along with two others identical to the first, lay in this inauspicious corner for over 40 years, my father its sole protector. Why he’d kept the envelope for so long reflected either his forgetfulness or tenderness, both explanations were plausible. Unfortunately, he was no longer there to resolve the mystery; he’d died within days of my discovering them.
He could have easily thrown away the envelope containing my first childhood teeth once I’d graduated college or married or had children of my own. Surely there were other mementos of my youth for him to treasure as he aged – photographs, grade school reports cards, yearbooks, and such. That he saved my teeth could certainly have been an afterthought. And yet, there in his sock drawer, a place he surely accessed daily, it would have been difficult if not impossible to ignore their presence entirely. What memories, I wondered, might he have conjured on the odd occasion when his hand, fumbling for something so quotidian, accidentally happened upon the miniscule package? Did he keep my teeth in close proximity for the express purpose of reminding himself of a more innocent time, before my turbulent adolescence and adult diaspora turned my relationship with him into something far more distant?
Discovering the envelope reminded me of the childhood ritual of placing one’s first, lost teeth beneath a pillow hoping a fairy will bestow a gift of money upon the bearer the next morning, as reward for having endured this first painful act of maturation. What was the origin of this ritual, I wondered? Was it practiced the world over? Or is the Tooth Fairyjust another commercialized, and distinctly American, superhero?
Our teeth are used to eat of course, and the act of eating our first food, absorbing something more substantive than mother’s milk, serves as an important sign of our potential survival past the first still vulnerable years of life. Is the loss of teeth an equally powerful premonition of our eventual death? What would our earliest ancestors have thought of this mysterious transformation from strength to weakness at still so tender an age? Could it be that, just as food and animal sacrifices were given to the gods to assure a good harvest or as plea that winter’s bleak darkness be transformed into spring’s renewal, that the loss of a child’s teeth necessitated prayers in hopes that the youth would survive her own early seasons? When a new tooth then emerged, (pushing forth with the same urgency as the mother during childbirth or the plant bursting through frozen ground), what relief there must have been for the adults, a vindication of prayer, or at least the continuation of life’s progress.
I took the envelope containing my teeth gingerly out of the drawer and distributed the two remaining ones to my brothers. But what would I do with a set of my own childhood teeth? What purpose did they serve now that my father was gone? Or would they, like him, need to be similarly set free, along with his shoes and clothes and socks, the accessories of a life no longer requiring objects to confirm its existence.
* I wrote about my last trip to visit my father when he became ill here. He died on June 27, 2011. He was 79 years old and was surrounded by his family in the last few days of his life.