Milk teeth tucked away in a velvet-lined earring box in the top dresser drawer, or has she buried our incisors and molars in the dirt with the portulaca and morning glory?
Instead of diamonds and toads falling from our mouths like the French fairy tales she read to us at bedtime, our 60-something mother saves—still?—calcified remnants of what were once breast milk, formula, bananas, green beans, apple butter, biscuits and gravy, sweet corn on the cob, blackberry cobbler, cube steak dredged in flour and pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet, the fluoride-treated tap water of rural Missouri.
Twenty primary teeth each for two sisters three years apart: root, hidden in gleaming pink gum, and crown, enamel erupted from bone but not actual bone. Internet descriptions like koans: “Both teeth and seashells are more complex than they might first appear.”
When I lost my first tooth, I set out a small rose-patterned porcelain and brass doll chair and jelly beans. I wrote a note to the tooth fairy. I wanted proof of her existence more than money. In the morning, I awake to find a colorful self-portrait on yellow construction paper with tiny bites taken from each jelly bean.
My senior year picture shows me wearing an off-the-shoulder formal black wrap all the girls wore over tank tops with a closed-lip smile. Behind the smile, I wear braces because my divorced parents fought until junior year about who was going to pay for braces.
Flashbacks from undergraduate anthropology classes in the mid-90s, whereby we learn our mouths are now too small, teeth too plentiful, overcrowding eventual. Our masseter muscles no longer as massive because we don’t rip flesh and crack nuts like we once did. We have, the professor lamented, gone soft.
Meanwhile, some true-crime drama airing late at night tells the story of an unidentified child whose teeth reveal where she was raised within a 100-mile radius, how old she was when she died, who misses her desperately and wants her home. A 10th-century German nun sports lapis lazuli in the tartar of her teeth, proving centuries later that women wrote and painted illuminated manuscripts, too We know all this because she bit the quill of her pen.
What we sometimes say: Cut your teeth. A kick in the teeth. Gnashing of teeth. To grit one’s teeth. To sink our teeth into. To bare our teeth. To take the teeth out of us. Armed to the teeth.
My granddad, a Depression-era hillbilly with no dental care, chased me and my kid sister around the house with his dentures. We squealed in morbid delight as he turned the corner with his replacement teeth. Dentures he had since his early 20s after serving in the Navy during the Normandy invasion.
When seven-year-old me told my suburban dentist I couldn’t wait to have dentures, he paused before asking me why I thought that.
“Because,” I said, “that’s what happens when you grow up. You lose all your teeth.”