We heard the footsteps before we saw her come flying down the stairs. “What is it, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” I asked. It was not normal for our oldest to be out of bed. She jutted out her jaw and responded without closing her mouth fully to form the words.
“I was wiggling my tooth and tasted blood in my mouth,” she said, making her way through the living room and into the bathroom. My husband followed her, and with a little coaching from him, she wiggled the tooth out in just a few seconds.
Several hours later, I entered her room in complete darkness. I took careful steps toward her bed, grateful she had picked up her floor and saved my feet from injury. When I reached the side of her bed, I slid my hand under her pillow until I felt the cool tin box in which she’d put her tooth. I pulled out the box and replaced it with a folded one dollar bill. I held my breath and groped my way back to her door.
When I got to my bedroom, I showed my husband the fruit of my labors – one sweet little baby tooth. “What should I do with it?” I asked. I had a feeling he would tell me to throw it away, but I couldn’t bring myself to toss the pearly tooth in the trash. We aren’t exactly the types who save every sentimental object. I’ve kept a few items for each kid from their babyhood: handmade knitted blankets, the hats they wore home from the hospital, their ID bracelets, some greeting cards, baptism outfits, and their first set of footprints. I’ve heard of parents keeping locks of hair and even their babies’ little dried out umbilical cord stumps, but that’s not my thing. I knew I wasn’t ready to part with the tooth, but my question remained: What should I do with it?
In autopilot, I walked over to the dresser, opened the lid of my wooden jewelry box, and placed the smooth incisor in the velvet-lined tray next to some silver hoop earrings. Just for now, I thought.
Five years earlier, when the only evidence of my daughter was a slightly rounded abdomen and incessant dry heaving, I spent a long weekend visiting my parents at my childhood home. The evening before I left, my mom brought out a large cardboard box full of memorabilia ranging from baby book to Varsity letter. There were English papers that held the opinions of a girl I roll my eyes at now, certificates and awards for reading books and taking tests, and then actual pieces of a tiny me: a lock of hair and all of my baby teeth.
I held them up to my mom and laughed. “I can’t believe you kept these,” I said, jostling the fistful of incisors, cuspids, and bicuspids. I put them back into an envelope and on the pile of things to toss. I had known as a kid that my mom kept our teeth – mine and those of my two brothers – in her jewelry box. I didn’t realize she still had them all these years later. For the rest of the evening, we sat together and I held each item, remembering and celebrating, asking my mom questions and making an intentional choice about what to do with each trinket. I made a silent vow to my baby: I will not hold onto useless things for you.
A few months after my daughter lost her first tooth, out came a second tooth, which led to a second visit from the Tooth Fairy and a pair of milk teeth in my jewelry box. “I don’t really know why I’m keeping them,” I confessed to my husband. “I just can’t bring myself to throw them away.” I laughed, knowing that someday my daughter would probably tell me to trash them anyway, just as I had done with my own mom. Would it be any easier to part with them when she’s an adult? or when I have a jewelry box full of baby teeth from three kids? What was I going to do with all of these baby teeth?
I know now that my mom didn’t keep my baby teeth for me. They didn’t belong in that cardboard box with my school photos and embarrassing art projects, because she had saved the teeth for herself. And my kids’ teeth aren’t keepsakes to go with the homemade hats and blankets someday. The milk teeth in my jewelry box are meant for me.
Each time I open my jewelry box and see the teeth, I hear first words and the sound of gnawing on crib rails. I see drool-covered chins and silly grins. I feel a pinch on an unsuspecting nipple and hear the whimpers of a teething baby who can’t sleep. The teeth in my jewelry box are breadcrumbs back to babyhood. They remind me of the joys of infancy and the wonder of watching my kids change and grow. They are tiny Ebenezer stones, tucked away for now, to remind me of God’s provision and faithfulness. Remember where you’ve been, they whisper.
I will stick to my vow, and I won’t hang onto the teeth forever; I won’t give them back to my kids, who hide their teeth under pillows and move forward in confidence without them. But in this season of life with littles, I will make space in my jewelry box. I will hold the little treasures in my hand and in my heart a little longer. I might not be ready to get rid of them now, but eventually, I’ll know when it’s time to let go.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Minutiae.”