A Vase Full of Baby Teeth
When I told my mom a vase full of baby teeth had come into my possession, she said, “Those are mine. I paid for them.”
I spent five years away from home. I tried on the mantle of New Yorker for a while, endeavored to live as a ski bum in Colorado, fell in love, and ultimately convinced my paramour to sojourn back to my homeland.
As we settled into our new apartment, my dad saw the return of his prodigal daughter as a chance to unload the contents of his storage unit. On top of unpacking the myriad of boxes from our long-distance move came a borage of totes containing the preserved contents of my childhood and teenage years. The dilemma came when I realized not all of the boxes were solely mine.
I spent many evenings sorting through childhood memorabilia and trinkets too sentimental to be discarded. I came to quickly recognize the distinct coloring styles of my siblings. My brother was neat and meticulous in the creation of elementary school art; my sister was quirky and hurried. My school work existed somewhere in between.
There was also a thick layer of hand drawn cards in one of the boxes. My favorite was a card drafted in colored pencil by my sister. The front page read: “Happy F******* Day.” The inside revealed that the asterixis stood in for the letters A-T-H-E-R-S.
The most unique item among the cache of nostalgia was a small ceramic vase painted in an outdated southwestern style. It was the kind of thing my great-grandmother would have kept on a shelf.
When I first handled the vase it became apparent it wasn’t empty. As I placed my hand toward the narrow opening and shook, a handful of broken baby teeth fell into my open palm.
It appears my mom had also folded and shoved some notes we had left for the tooth fairy into the vase. One note includes a plea from my brother asking: “Would you let me keep the tooth, PLEASE!”
On an index card, I wrote a lengthy note about how, sadly, the tooth I was proffering the fairy had a cavity. I throw my brother and sister under the bus saying “not to be rude” but I do take better care of my teeth than they do. “So,” I wrote, “I kinda think of it as a lesson. Even if you brush your teeth every day, you gotta brush your teeth twice a day, use floss, and mouthwash.” Basically, I was a shill for Crest.
These notes might make it seem like the tooth fairy was some sort of tyrant — taking our teeth against our will and causing us to feel shame for our poor dental habits. However, I remember writing notes negotiating higher prices for my lost teeth. The requests for more money were slipped under my pillow with my teeth, and for molars I remember getting a whopping $5.
The small vase didn’t contain any of those notes and certainly doesn’t contain all the teeth from our childhood. I wonder if there is another tooth receptacle buried in a box somewhere with more correspondence to the tooth fairy and another motherlode of teeth.
I ended up placing the vase on the shelf above our TV with all of our random knick-knacks that my boyfriend and I deemed worthy of display. You’d never know by the looks of it that it was full of broken baby teeth. Though, its very nineties aesthetic is out of place among the baubles commemorating our commitment to various fandoms (predominantly Harry Potter) and framed photographs.
To me, its like this little secret. An opaque vase full of baby teeth holds a prominent place among our household decor. It’s eccentric and silly.
But, it is also more than that. A subtle ode to growing up — changing. A testament to a parent’s love.
I guess now there is a bit of a market for baby teeth keepsakes, but pre-Amazon and Etsy, I imagine parents like mine felt a conundrum. Losing teeth seems like a big deal. What do you do? Throw the outcropping of calcium in the trash or keep it buried in a night stand drawer in a container your children will never disturb.
What happens when your kids are in their late twenties and the teeth are broken? Is it a metaphor? Could it represent shattered dreams, lost innocence, the harsh realities of adulthood?
On bad days, maybe. Mostly, I see it as a bizarre testament to my parents’ love. Especially exemplified by the fact that when I told my mom about the teeth she said, “Those are mine. I paid for them.”
I still haven’t given them back.