Three stocky molars rattling in a clear plastic cup. The oral surgeon bounded into the waiting room brandishing his handiwork and offered them to me. At first his slightly ghoulish gift didn’t register, because for the last hour I’d been holding my breath waiting for my daughter to emerge from the other side of anesthesia.
“You should save these,” he instructed along with directions of no solid foods. No straws or vigorous brushing. “One day you’ll look back and smile at these.” Coated in blood with angry roots flayed outward, I chose not to believe him but tucked the vial in my purse nonetheless.
That night the tooth fairy splurged on my daughter because she’d endured three teeth being pulled via the oral surgeon. In reality I adeptly smuggled five singles under her pillow. The next morning squeals of delight over her newfound cash accompanied breakfast. But rather than asking to instantly spend them she instead arranged them on the piano bench or the dining table like a fan. After a few days I offered what I thought was the ultimate treat, a Target splurge, to spend her new wealth. The response left me speechless, and a bit sad.
“I’d like to keep my dollars, Mommy,” my daughter proclaimed. “I’ll save them until I’m an adult and buy something important.” And perhaps I imagined it, but as my daughter spoke her lips seemed to purse and a normally clear blonde brow furrowed.
I remembered that when I was five, the tooth fairy was much stingier and doled out a quarter like hidden treasure. Within minutes I’d managed to badger my parents into walking me across town to the Candy Barn, a converted red garage tucked in an alley where children—with utter abandon—blew their tooth and holiday money on five cent candy and liquid stickers. Saving pennies for a rainy day was an abstract notion relegated to the drudgery of adults who worked when they should have played and never, ever wore messy clothes or ate with their fingers. We children knew that pennies were meant to be kissed and set free because they weren’t as valuable as other things.
Except somehow my little one had embraced this mature concept all too well.
What had convinced her to discard her carefree ways?
Her comment rattled me for the rest of the day as I took stock of all the saved pennies I’d amassed around the house. A project shelf with craft store kits we hadn’t made time for yet. Fancy outfits with tags drooping from the sleeves because just the right occasion hadn’t reared its head. (Where, in fact, does one wear a silk ladybug dress with a tangled black tutu?) Even the photo library on my phone hinted at too many missed opportunities in favor of picture perfect Instagram-worthy poses where the smiles were a bit too plastic. The gestures a bit too staged. And then I scrolled back even further through the photos to my teenage son’s infant pictures, and I realized in a panic that time races by whether you save your pennies or not.
Far too often we hold ourselves to a standard that demands waiting. A few more moments of planning and the dinosaur birthday party will be perfect. A few more thousand dollars saved to get us to the dream vacation to Europe. And despite our best attempts to gift our children with our strongest attributes and hide the slightly neurotic ones, they observe. They absorb. And sometimes, they save too much.
I considered the saved pennies that hover above us. While I certainly don’t want to raise reckless human beings, I also don’t want my children to hold their breath during the exciting moments in life in favor of what could be. They need to celebrate their messy perfection with each new day. Any other lens will allow them all too easily to miss just how exciting embracing the chaos can be. I want them to leave the worrying to me – although I’ve vowed to stow away pieces of that anxiety at the door when I step inside our home. Together, I’d love for the three of us to spend our pennies with abandon and instead hang onto the memories we create and save those for the rainy days, to reminisce and rejoice.
The vile of remaining baby teeth, minus the one the tooth fairy claimed, is tucked in a dresser drawer under stacks of folded pillowcases. My daughter has since spent her five dollars on a collection of miniature paper plates for her favorite American Girl doll. And I’m on the floor with her indulging in a sublime imaginary tea party rather than fretting over what to do with those teeth.
Sarah’s work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, and a number of other journals. A teacher and freelance editor (as well as an editor for the journal, Mothers Always Write,) she parents an amazing toddler and teen and spends most of her time wondering how she ever got so lucky.
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