Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Loothing It

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My daughter hangs out with a toothless gang. They sputter and spit, their tongues often fill the empty spaces in their grins; they eat apples with the sides of their mouths. They skip in the classroom door with the news. I lost one! Mine's loose! Their initials grace the tooth loss chart on the wall. It's exciting for them, this metamorphosis -- milestones and rituals and tooth fairies who pop by in the darkness of night.

I'm supposed to be excited and happy, too -- and really, I share in the thrill of the loss -- but the simple truth is this: my child's perfect little straight white teeth, the ones we've known now only a short time, are being replaced by enormous grownup cuspids and incisors. These are the teeth she'll be taking to college.

Wait! I want to gnash my teeth at the fairies. Stop. Don't take them just yet.

My daughter's teeth emigration appears to be right on schedule with that of her peers. This comes as a surprise; we expected her to be dentally delayed. Her dentist had shown us x-rays of grown up teeth lying far below the gum lines. Yet, here we are, less than a year later, awed and astonished at the frequency of tooth fairy visits. Shiny gold dollar coins and wildflowers take the place of the tiny white gems my daughter carefully tucks in the knitted pouch under her pillow.

The most recent exodus of her top tooth was not a quick or painless journey. It pointed west one day, east the other, and then stuck straight out before it started flapping when she ran. (The term hanging by a thread became all too literal.) It wasn't pretty. It looked strange, the tooth's direction and orientation erratic like a weathervane in a crosswind. It was funny, but I kept my giggles to myself.

"It's coming out any day; it'll happen really soon," I reminded her when it hurt. But instead of feeling reassured by this information, she got sad. "Then I'm not going to have another loose one!" Daughter Angst cried.

You'll have so many you'll lose count, I wanted to tell her -- 20 baby teeth in total -- that's a lot of coins and wildflowers. But I didn't say it. Only 20!? she'd likely whine. I know what she means. I finish a book I adore and think: then I'm not going to have this book to read anymore. It's hard for us. We suffer post-birthday depression (and, being over 40, I now also suffer pre- and during-birthday depression). It's why I hate surprise parties so much. Joy is in the anticipation, knowing what we have in store.

Mostly though, she was excited about her impending loss and the leap it suggested. Was that a swagger I saw in her step? Did my daughter really call our two-year-old neighbor "young" and "cute"? I was eager for her, and excited, too, but keenly aware of another feeling mingling with my excitement.

We say "lost" a tooth and it is a loss. Lost childhood, lost innocence, each little tooth lost represents my job as a mother of a young child diminishing. We equate teeth falling out with aging -- Google "tooth loss" and you'll get all kinds of geriatric facts of the dentally declining.

With most losses we mourn and move on. With a tooth departure we celebrate with financial reward, live with the emptiness, the space not yet filled and wait for something bigger and permanent to take root. "I feel like I'm a baby again," she said about her vacant gum line. There's a promise of more grownup things to come, but nothing there yet in its place.

A struggle for occupancy was going on inside her mouth. As if in some appropriate foreshadowing, the big teeth came in behind the baby ones, shark rows, coexisting for a while. Then the permanent ones lost patience and started to push the baby ones forward and out -- big bully teeth, saying get out of my way, ready or not, here we come. And now the loose ones are evicted; my child's babyhood pushed away before my eyes.

My daughter had wiggled the wayward incisor with both her tongue and her fingers for weeks. Its wiggling occupied much of her waking hours: on the soccer field, in the car, when she was supposed to be eating breakfast. The tooth finally dislodged itself one night at dinner while she was chewing a slice of honey-roasted turkey, and she found she was chewing on her tooth.

And then she really lost it, put it somewhere and couldn't find it. We retraced her steps, looked high and low for tiny bits of white. Since it was way past bedtime, we had to abandon the search and I told her to write the tooth fairy a note. I don't know where my tooth is. I really lost it, she wrote. I would like it if you could find it, but I would also really like it if I could keep it once . . . if you really have to take my tooth, it would be okay. The tooth fairy, no doubt willing to reward such a considerate request, complied and left the trademark gold coin and wildflower. She also left the tooth for my daughter to find, right where it had been lost on the marble fireplace hearth, a tiny remnant, now no longer needed.

Joanne Catz Hartman, lives with her husband and daughter in northern California. She wrote the Literary Mama column Mother Angst and was also a columnist for San Francisco’s J . Her work appears in the anthologies Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, Using Our Words, and The Knitter’s Gift. Prior to motherhood, she worked for a New England public television station on an award-winning feature magazine show, was a reporter and photographer for a sailing magazine, an editor at a wire service, and spent a decade teaching middle school.

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