A long time ago, or not so long ago but it feels like a long time ago, before we had children, my husband and I used to save our coins in a giant jar. It probably didn't actually have anything to do with not yet having children and more to do with actually having coins, but that's not the point. The point is that we both had coins, my husband and I, all the time, and they were annoying to have. We already had cellphones and therefore didn't make calls from payphones, so really we didn't ever need coins. So we could collect them in a giant jar and when the jar got full we would bring it to the bank and try to guess how much money was in there and we never guessed correctly but once I guessed pretty close, and when all those coins dropped down that noisy machine we'd get a receipt and we'd take the receipt to a bank teller and the bank teller would give us cash. So much cash! And then we'd go out to a restaurant for dinner and order drinks and appetizers and entrees and feel absolutely, filthy rich. Well, those days are over. Not because of the children, like I said, but because of the coins. Or lack thereof.
I actually used to have cash in my wallet. In fact, I still carry a wallet that has a nice little area for cash to be all flattened if I was ever to have any, which, as I've said, I don't. But who even takes cash anymore? Bodegas and taxi cabs and artisans in booths at craft fairs take credit cards now and so many businesses have those little signs about being cash free to prevent robberies, I think. Now people just wave their magic phones in front of machines to pay for things! We used to pay babysitters in cash but then a few years ago they asked us to pay them on Venmo, which I avoided doing at first not because I was worried about internet privacy, but because it sounded like one of those things that would take me forever to set up and for which I'd forget my password a million times. But then I finally did it and now I really never have cash. Which is fine, except when it's not.
Which is when my son comes home and proudly tells the story of how, when he was eating a sugar daddy given to him by the teacher of his superhero stream afterschool enrichment class, he felt a POP! and then his mouth filled with blood. Yes, the molar had been loose. But not THAT loose.
And it's not fine when my daughter is casually eating strawberries while I'm reading to her one moment and then the next moment she's looking in the mirror and crying hysterically because she managed to not only lose her first tooth in a strawberry, but somehow, impressively, also managed to then swallow the tooth she lost in the strawberry. Yes, the tooth had been loose, but not THAT loose.
And it's also not fine when my other daughter loses not one, not two, not three, but FOUR teeth after bouts of pillow fight couch jumping wrestling with my son. And, for the record, those teeth had been quite loose but my daughter was so terrified of losing them and so protective over them that I thought it would never actually happen. Silly me.
That's when it's not fine to have cash. That’s when it’s a good thing to live in a condo with neighbors who are our friends because sometimes, fairly late in the evening, when we are desperate, we can ask our neighbors if they have any dollar bills or even coins and sometimes, when we are lucky, they do.
Why? Because of the tooth fairy, of course.
Now, as we don't celebrate Christmas or Easter, the tooth fairy is really the one magical creature we allow into our home and in whom our children believe. And boy, do they believe. Or at least my girls still do. My son seems to be in it for the payout at this point. But they all dutifully write the tooth fairy letters asking her questions about her name (Alessandra), her size (small, of course!), her home (see below), and her abilities (isn't flying into bedrooms in the dead of night and replacing teeth with money enough?!) and then outline and draw arrows to where they'd like her to reply on the page. They ask for things like gift cards (what on earth?) in exchange for their teeth, or for her to grant them special powers, like flight. For the record, I have gotten quite good at my tooth fairy handwriting.
The night the babysitter called me while I was at a work dinner to let me know my son had lost a tooth that was connected to his braces and therefore connected to his mouth even after it had fallen out (well, really he had pulled it out); the night I came home early from said work dinner to cut my son's tooth free with kitchen scissors because we don't have needle-nose pliers, and neither, I learned, do the neighbors who often have cash; the night I made my own finger bleed with said kitchen scissors--while incredibly, amazingly, impressively not cutting my son's mouth--my son wrote to the tooth fairy to ask her if she might pay him a little extra because she could maybe use the hardware of the brace on his tooth to create a door for her castle. Sheesh.
One of the things I learned in spring 2020 when my husband and I took turns trying not to pull our hair out or have nervous breakdowns as we sat with our children and their "packet work" (this, before their year of online school was up and running) is that there are a lot of different customs around teeth and what to do when they fall out. From all over the world! Some even dating back centuries! I cannot for the life of me remember which child had to read about these international lost-tooth traditions as I have blocked most of the details of that spring from my working memory--because, well, why wouldn't I?--but I do remember feeling ever so much more equipped to discuss this than I was to try to explain to my children why 6 and 3 makes 9. (It just does.) But I found it interesting. Baby teeth fall out, which is disgusting, and then people have to figure out what to do with them. And they've been trying to figure it out and tell their children stories or make meaning out of these weird tiny bones for a long, long time.
My children spend a long time talking about their loose teeth, then they lose them (which often involves blood and sometimes involves tears, and in the case of the kitchen-scissor incident, involved my sweat and blood), then they're told to put them in little ziplock bags (we don't have any of those fancy lost tooth pillow doll things so a ziplock is the next best way to get easy access to the teeth since one child sleeps on a top bunk and another on a loft bed), then they put the bags under their pillows and go to sleep. Once they're asleep my husband and I frantically search the house for bills or change or text our neighbors to ask for cash before sneaking into our childrens' bedrooms while they sleep to trade the tooth for money. It's really strange, actually. But, as my children will tell you, the tooth fairy needs the teeth for her castle. Which is what my mom told my brothers and me.
A note about the tooth fairy castle: it's conveniently located near us, right off 495, the Capital Beltway. Some people might know this structure as the Mormon church, and an old friend of mine might even have gotten married there in a double wedding ceremony, but I knew it as the tooth fairy castle when I was a child, and so now, too, do my children. It is... made of teeth.
Which, yes, is a lie. Sometimes it's okay to lie to my children. Which might be a lie I tell myself. And mostly, I think, I don't tell them outright lies, but sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I avoid telling them whole truths when I don't think it's entirely necessary. Bit by bit, as they mature, the world will come into focus for them, and all of its impossible miseries and heartbreaks and injustices will sharpen in their eyes just as the wondrous, inexplicable, surprising beauty will. This is inevitable. It's happening already. And the stories my husband and I tell them will guide the contours of their focus; lies and truths, both. The safety and security of the home and the family we devote ourselves to creating for them is the bedrock from which we hope to launch them into the world, fully formed, reasonable people with healthy adult teeth.
And what's so wrong with a bit of whimsy–they're not gonna find much of it in the Torah. So we tell this strange, happy story about a little fairy who comes in the dead of night to take their baby teeth for herself in exchange for a dollar. A fairy who pays them actual cash they can use as they please, which is to say, on overpriced, mediocre ice cream from the truck that mercilessly appears outside their school every single day. Soon enough they'll learn the horrors teeth can reap. One day the misery of modern dentistry, second only to the misery of pre-modern dentistry, which, yes, is all better than what was surely the misery of a world without dentistry, will become clear to them. Maybe it's a good thing, starting the whole tooth journey with this little fairy. Maybe one day, when they have children of their own, they'll think back on Alessandra while a drill carves out their deadened, rotted roots, and feel a sliver of joy. Or maybe, at the very least, they'll remember to get some cash on their way home.