Published on May 16th, 2014 | by Andrea Lani0
Andrea Lani’s MEMENTO MORI: On Collecting Baby Teeth
“Look, Mom!” My oldest son, Milo, came into the kitchen, his mouth open, a large gap where the tooth he had been worrying for days used to be.
“I was pretending to put my loose tooth in the tooth pillow––” he demonstrated, holding up to his mouth the pocket of the small cushion I had hastily sewn when it became clear that his tooth was hanging on by its last thread of pink tissue, “––and it just came out.”
Milo’s seventh birthday had already passed and my husband, Curry, and I had started wondering if he would ever lose a tooth, or if he would be like Peter Pan, forever with a mouthful of tiny white pearls. That night, Milo put the tooth pillow under his bed pillow and I rummaged in my top dresser drawer, where I keep scarves, jewelry I never wear, and various mementos, for a gold dollar. I found a Sacajawea coin, but forgot to put it the in the tooth pillow and I woke with a jolt the next morning when I realized my mistake. I rushed into Milo’s room and gave him an uncharacteristically effusive greeting, hugging him as I fumbled under his pillow to switch the tooth out for the dollar. Having successfully spirited the tooth out of his room, I dropped it in a little painted wooden bowl on my dresser. As more teeth came out, I added them to the bowl, not really thinking about a long-term plan for their disposal.
The old-fashioned name for baby teeth is “milk teeth,” presumably because they grow in while the baby is still nursing, each tooth one milestone closer to the inevitable solid food and weaning of the child. The dentist name for them is “deciduous,” like trees that lose their leaves every fall and grow them anew in spring. The name suggests renewal and rebirth. But, unlike trees, children only shed and regrow their teeth once, a reminder of the fleeting nature of childhood and the impermanence of life itself, and that second chances are doled out rarely.
When Milo was born, I received a gift set from my grandmother––silver-plated toddler utensils and two tiny pewter boxes, one engraved “First Curl,” the other “First Tooth.” At the time I thought this was odd, not only because the first tooth wouldn’t fall out until years after it had grown in, long after the first curl had been clipped and forgotten and the tarnishing teddy-bear-motif spoon and fork were put away, but also because it seemed a bit macabre to store away a jagged and blood-tinged baby tooth.
My father-in-law has a film canister that holds a tiny hospital bracelet with “Curry Thomas” spelled out in white, tooth-sized beads and all of my husband’s baby teeth, including his supernumerary tooth, a cone-shaped fang that grew in after his top front baby tooth fell out and which earned my husband the nickname “Spike” until it was pulled to make way for the adult tooth. I suppose I should be touched by this bit of sentimentality in an otherwise gruff man, but I find the collection of teeth gross, especially when my father-in-law pulls the canister out during dinner parties, spilling beads and teeth into his coarse palm.
But now I have my own collection of baby teeth. Once my younger two children––twins who have lost their teeth almost in tandem––started losing teeth, I began keeping each boy’s teeth in a tiny manila envelope labeled with his initial. I don’t know what else to do with them. It seems a shame to throw them in the trash––they worked so hard at growing them. I never saved their placentas to plant beneath a peach tree in the yard, and their umbilical stumps got swept away in the foggy days of early motherhood. After I trim their hair, I sprinkle the clippings off the deck and into the yard, in hopes that a bird will pick up the strands and weave them into a golden nest.
But their teeth? I keep thinking there should be some good purpose for them. I consider composting them, but the mineralized enamel is more rock than flesh, and the longest-lasting bit of the human body. The teeth would not decompose, but pop up in the vegetable garden, tiny white seeds, the way marbles used to emerge from the soil of my childhood backyard, relics of ghost children who had long ago played behind our old house. I imagine sprinkling their teeth in the woods, where they might grow into tooth trees, or become bricks in the abodes of fairies or elves, or be gnawed clean of any last remaining bits of blood and tissue by mice. Whatever I do with my children’s baby teeth, they will last on this earth, whether in envelope, landfill, garden, or woods, far longer than my children will.
Milo at twelve has recently lost so many canines and bicuspids that his mouth looks a bit like a llama’s, with long expanses of pink flesh between incisors and molars. He has dispensed with the pillow, and leaves his bloody teeth on the edge of the bathroom sink. I found one there last night, a canine worn to a nub.
In the dark I groped in my top drawer for a gold dollar, but I must have exhausted the supply I had received as change when I put a twenty in the ticket machine for the T last time I was in Boston. I remembered the Kate Greenaway-themed toffee tin in my closet, where I keep a few two-dollar bills from my grandmother and some coins I collected as a kid––French centimes, a big fifty cent piece, wheatback pennies. I took out a 1979 Susan B. Anthony silver dollar and hesitated a moment as I weighed the coin in my palm; I’d had it since I was younger than Milo is now.
“Money is a silly thing to collect,” I told myself and placed the silver dollar on the edge of the sink. The tooth I slipped into an envelope marked “M” and placed in my top drawer. Perhaps some day, I will spill the teeth into my palm during a party and pass them around to my dinner guests, proof that I once had a child with a mouth full of tiny white pearls, but for now their teeth nestle in envelopes, among unworn bracelets and antique handkerchiefs, awaiting the next deposit.