thirty white horses on a red hill
first they champ,
then they stamp,
then they stand still.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Hobbit’
A tooth went for about a dime on my street in the 1960s. Though I don’t actually have a direct memory of it, I recall the fact that when a tooth came out we would put it under our pillow that night and the Tooth Fairy would somehow retrieve it from under the weight of our head, leaving Eisenhower’s bald profile in its place. Given how many baby teeth I had to leave for that benign bone collector, you’d think I’d have clearer memories of making the drop.
What I do remember very vividly is using my tongue to wiggle a loose tooth back and forth while sitting in school, and even more vividly wedging the tip of my tongue under the bottom of the tooth on the inside where it had become detatched so that the tooth would lean forward, still attached along the outside. And finally that warm and alarming taste of blood.
What strangeness are teeth! Like fingernails and toenails they are parts of our skeleton that show on the outside of us, the architecture exposed, a glimpse of the clay from which we are formed. They are like granite outcroppings on a hillside, hinting at what there would be if the breath of life were removed and grass or skin whithered away. And am I right — that teeth are the only parts of our bodies that we are given a preliminary set of? We don’t drop our arms or legs during childhood, nor can we in later years evacuate our innards in favor of new stuffing, as beneficial as that would be to many of us. New eardrums anyone? How about the eyes, which fail so many before they wear out the rest of themselves? Why did the Creator deign to accord us a completely disposable set of teeth while of all our other body parts we must take utmost care, unless it is that a mouthful of teeth is so vital to our well-being that we must have them before our mouths can fit them or our gums support them. Or maybe it’s because the gums must be broken — with something — before we develop the memory to record such awful pain. I don’t know, but to me — to me — it seems to point to not only brilliant but also benevolent design.
It’s all about the ivory these days at our house. I’ve likened our little family before to a herd of elephants, and right about now that seems apropos. Emilia has two teeth now, the bottom fronts, and is working on the rest of her starter package. The thing about photographing them, however, is that when she smiles she also wags her head around so that the camera has trouble focusing on her, with the result that there are not a lot of really clear photographs of her new, white, razor sharp teeth. We’ve been letting her maul apple slices, which she loves. Bananas, no. Sweet potatoes, no. She will happily mash these others in her fist and then wave her hands and splatter chunky, handmade apple- or yam-sauce around the kitchen, but she doesn’t seem interested in putting those in her mouth. But she knows what to do with a Honeycrisp, boy howdy. As she stuffs a wedge of apple into her mouth and works her jaw you can hear those lower incisors tearing cleanly into the flesh of the fruit. She mostly spits out the chunks but she loves the juice.
While Millie has been getting accustomed to her first teeth, Mara and Angela have both been preparing to lose some of the ones they have been making good use of for years.
Angela’s wisdom teeth came in beautifully when she was younger, came in with none of the thuggish crowding behavior so common in teeth of that ilk, which in my own teenaged and too-small jaw were impacted and had to be gone in after as soon as they started pushing on the molars above. Angela’s wisdom teeth might have gone the distance, but one of them developed a crack and some subsequent decay — I blame sucking on ice cubes, though she derides this diagnosis as quackery — so they are all coming out in two weeks, just to reduce the chance of further trouble.
Neither Angela nor I is looking forward to her operation, she because it will probably hurt and will certainly inconvenience her, I because I will temporarily lose my tag-team partner in the daily struggle against chaos (or should I say KAOS; some of Mara’s behaviors lately suggest she might currently be an agent for the original Axis of Evil). But both of us are excited that Mara, our family’s first baby elephant — after much jealous pining to experience the thrill and danger described by older (and lisping) friends, and much pulling and pushing and testifying that she was sure one of her teeth was starting to become loose — actually coughed one up about a week ago. One of her bottom teeth gave way in preparation for the arrival of her first real tusk.
After much careful examination, the little tooth was placed in a mesh pouch and set to rest next to her pillow when she went to bed. In the morning, the tooth was gone and in its place there was a new $1 Jefferson “gold” coin.