“I know you’re the tooth fairy.” Noah, my 8-year-old, looks me dead in the eye. We are out to dinner. A large television hangs from the wall. Without blinking, he looks back up at the screen. A small, dry wing falls from my back and lands on the floor like a candy wrapper. The thing about not existing is that sometimes it’s a lot like being a mother.
“Sorry, Mama,” says Eli, my 6-year-old. He pats my hand and takes a bite of broccoli.
I think about all the elaborate notes in pink cursive, the 100 hundred shiny pennies in a cloth pouch, the blue stuffed cat, the five-dollar bill, the Superman, the glitter trails, the wooden hearts, the breath I held, the way I ever so gently lifted the pillow, the sparkle-stamped envelope with the tooth fairy’s address: 12345 Tooth Fairy Lane, Moutharctica, Earth. I kept myself secret. I tiptoed. I used my imagination, and now I’ve been caught. Noah looks at me again with a mix of sadness and pity and suspicion. I turn around to see what he’s watching. It’s a cartoon about a sea sponge who lives with his meowing pet snail.
A little light goes out inside me. But I can’t locate exactly what it ever lit up.
After Tinker Bell drinks the poison Hook left for Peter Pan, and her wings can barely carry her, and her light starts fading, and after she lets Peter Pan’s tears run over her finger, she realizes “she can get well again if children believed in fairies.” “Clap your hands; don’t let Tink die,” says Peter Pan. Many children clapped, some didn’t, “a few little beasts hissed.” Tink, of course, is saved. She flashes “more merry and impudent than ever.” It doesn’t even occur to her to thank the children who believed. Tink, whose name sounds like a penny tossed in a glass. Tink, whose name sounds like a wish that won’t come true.
Often as a mother I am in a cold sweat juggling whimsy and delight. “Magic anyone? Endless fun? Astounding joy?”
“No,” say my sons, “we’re good.” And they are. It’s me who isn’t good. It’s me who wants it. And I don’t even want it.
Often as a mother I am in a cold sweat juggling whimsy and delight. “Magic anyone? Endless fun? Astounding joy?”
What I want is my sons’ illegible, lyrical teeth. I want to turn them into an alphabet just for us. Letters with crowns and necks and roots. Milk letters. Deciduous letters. In this language I would draw a map that clearly marks where my sons’ wonder is buried so they always know where to go on their coldest days.
Clap your hands; don’t let mother die. My sons clap their hands and I brighten.
I’ve never seen a fairy. I’ve never looked up and seen a faint green glow. The closest I’ve ever come was once as a child — in a dream — I ran after myself, and when I caught up to me and turned around I wasn’t there.
We take shelter in children to escape oblivion. We ask the child to drag around the unwieldy weight of magic. To clap wildly. To believe in what we believe in no longer. We ask the child to keep the awe we forgot how to hold. The fairy isn’t the fairy. It’s the child who is the fairy. It’s the child who is enchanted, a metaphor, a shape-shifter. My sons keep bursting out of their skin. They smell like poppies, warm earth, milk. And then one day, out of nowhere, they won’t anymore. They are losing their baby teeth at what seems an alarming rate. Adult teeth bloom in their mouths. Their limbs grow longer and longer like shadows.
For whom is a child’s childhood? I think it’s for all of us. But it’s not for when we are children. Our childhoods are for later.
Some believe fairies are the discarded gods of the oldest faiths. Like shed skins of light. They continue to exist because they believe, like a child, that they exist.
The fairy isn’t the fairy. The mother is the fairy. The fairy flits back and forth, uncatchable. Who is she? The fairy is the space between knowing and not knowing. It’s the realization as it dawns. It’s what glows between a mother and her child. It’s Puck sweeping the dust with a broom behind the door. The fairy is the dust. The fairy is the door.
In 1691, Robert Kirk, a minister in the Church of Scotland, wrote a treatise claiming fairies were as real as you or me. It wasn’t published, though, until 1851, when “The Secret Commonwealth” was printed in a limited edition of a hundred copies. We each, he wrote, have a fairy counterpart, a co-walker, an echo. He described fairies as “somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight.” Their bodies are spongeous and thin. “They are sometimes heard to bake bread.” “They speak but little and that by way of whistling — clear, not rough.” “They hang between the nature of God, and the nature of man.” Their body is “as a sigh is.”
They do not curse, but among their common faults are “Envy, Spite, Hypocrisy, lying, and dissimulatione.” They are prone to sadness because of their pendulous state. They can cure a sick cow. They steal milk, and when they are very angry they spoil it.
On May 14, 1692, Reverend Kirk took a walk in his nightgown on the fairy hill beside the manse. Later that evening, on the same hill, his body was found dead. The body that was buried, according to locals, was a changeling. The fairies had kidnapped the minister in his nightgown, replaced him with a dead fairy, and held the reverend captive in Fairyland.
The punishment, it seems, for believing too much in fairies is to be snatched away by them for eternity.
Three days after I give birth to Noah, I am nursing him in a soft, beige rocking chair when a goat walks in. “Hello,” I say. The goat, being a goat, says nothing. Most likely, I am hallucinating from no sleep. Most likely, a little piece of this world has torn and through the rip a goat has walked in. The goat lays his soft head on Noah’s head, like a kiss. The room fills up with wildflowers and then empties of wildflowers and then the goat is gone. Who am I to say there is no thin veil between this world and fairyland? I know this now, but I didn’t know it then: I am the tooth fairy.
This is how you can tell if your baby has been replaced by a changeling: boil water in an eggshell. If your baby is a changeling it will laugh and reveal it’s as old as the forest. In all its years, it will say when it suddenly begins to speak, it has never seen anyone boil water in an eggshell. If you wish to keep the fairies away, put the Bible, a piece of bread, or iron in your child’s bed. And if you wish to see a fairy, take the rope that once bound a corpse to a bier and tie it around your waist. Bend over and look between your legs. A procession of fairies will appear. If the wind changes directions while you do this, it is possible you will drop down dead.
There are two kinds of fairies. There are the “trooping” fairies, who live together on a hill. And then there are the ones who attach themselves to individuals, like a haunt. If I were a fairy, I’m certain I’d be the second kind, but to tell you the truth I’d make a terrible fairy. A terrible mother fairy who writes about fairies, and by doing so angers them all.
We are at the pediatric dentist because Eli has flown off his scooter and landed on his face. The dentist, who looks more like a very old child dressed up as a dentist than an actual dentist, puts Eli in a chair and raises it with a crank to the ceiling. She climbs up a ladder and examines him in the air. “You okay?” I call out from down here. From all the way down here. She tells me his two front teeth will have to be pulled. “Bad news,” she says, smiling. She lowers Eli and climbs back down. She hands me a brochure on sedation options. She is wearing tiny pink sneakers. I imagine a back room filled with sparkling white teeth. Nightly she grinds them. And stirs the powder into her warm milk. Unlike the rest of us, she will live forever.
“Can we err on the side of nature?” I ask. “I don’t recommend that,” says the dentist who clearly was once a fairy.
She shows me two fake front baby teeth attached to a wire. After she pulls Eli’s teeth she can “cement the device into his mouth,” she says. “I made one for my daughter,” she says, her red cheeks glowing.
The dentist’s office is decorated like an amusement park: vending machines filled with toys, televisions frantic with cartoons, posters of wide-eyed animals in pants. The instruments on the dentist’s tray — forceps, mouth mirror, periodontal probe — shine as the only reminder of where we are. There is even a giant stuffed panda. All you need to do is leave your name and number on a small piece of paper for the chance to win. I am so distraught I almost enter. Would she deliver the panda herself? Would she knock on our door with the prize and then devour us?
“Let’s get out of here,” I say to Eli. “Let’s run, Mama,” says Eli. And we run. We run home where it’s safe. Eli’s baby teeth stay in for another year. And when they fall out naturally I add them to the rest. Between Noah and Eli I have twelve. Twelve teeth. Sometimes I just hold them. Noah’s in one hand. Eli’s in the other. Proof of their babyhood. Proof of the mouths they left behind. Those baby mouths that spoke words thickly accented by the land they came from. Maybe it’s those teeth that are the fairies. The ones the children, in order to grow, must cast off. The teeth that made little holes in the air with new breath.
If I were really the tooth fairy, I’d lay each tooth, like a body, on a rose leaf. I’d carry them one by one over my head through the streets. The air would brighten, and grow sad and sweet. And I would sing, though I cannot sing, a lament for everything I must remember and everything my sons must forget.
Last night I slept with all my sons’ teeth underneath my pillow. And when I woke up, Noah and Eli were leaving me notes. They each had a long white beard, and they were very old and wise and radiant. I had caught them. And then I woke up again.
First published in The Paris Review Daily.
This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, with Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1869)
The Problem with Tinder
Algorithms. That’s what everything runs on these days, algorithms. It’s why you only see certain posts from your friends on Facebook, why you get the Google search results you get, and why you see the news stories you do on your news page. It’s also why you see the people you see on Tinder.
I’m not on Tinder, and I’m not even going to “try it out” in the name of journalism. It’s where you “swipe” and meet random people, right? But the more you use it the less random it gets. I was watching Today the other morning and they interviewed the CEO of the company. One thing I didn’t know is that the service learns from the way you use it. For example, if you are consistently interested in women who ski, that’s what Tinder will show you a lot of. And this is where technology is changing the way we live our lives, and not in a positive way.
Do people really want to get together only with a partner who has the same exact interests as they do? I hope not, and I don’t think they do. Think of how our parents or grandparents met and maybe even how you met your spouse. Did they fill out a questionnaire to see who was most “compatible”? Did you not want to date people because they weren’t into football or weren’t interested in cars or because they were vegetarian and you like pepperoni on your pizza? Of course not.
That’s where I think technology has messed things up. We only interact with people who have the same interests, and we live in echo chambers politically and socially. Serendipity is gone, but we can fine-tune our news and social pages so precise that they reflect only the stuff we’re interested in (based on what has interested us in the past).
But back to Tinder. The company had a meltdown on Twitter recently that — surprise! — looks to be a planned PR stunt.
Dalton Trumbo was an acclaimed screenwriter and novelist. He was also one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of film industry professionals who had alleged Communist ties and were eventually blacklisted. The ten were sentenced to one-year in jail; Trumbo served between 10 and 11 months. When he got out he couldn’t find any work. So he wrote screenplays under pseudonyms. This November we’ll see a big screen biopic on Trumbo’s life, titled Trumbo. Bryan Cranston plays the writer, and he has a fantastic supporting cast including Diane Lane, Louis CK, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, and Helen Mirren. Here’s the trailer:
And if you’re wondering if Trumbo ever wrote for The Saturday Evening Post … he did! Trumbo wrote several short stories and articles for the Post in the 1930s and ’40s. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1950 film noir Gun Crazy, which was based on the MacKinlay Kantor story published in The Saturday Evening Post story in 1940. Kantor and Millard Kaufman were given credit for the screenplay because Trumbo was blacklisted at the time.
Hopefully the film — which I’m sure will be well-represented come Oscar time — will spark renewed interest in Trumbo and some of his out-of-print books will be released again, particularly Additional Dialogue, a series of letters he wrote between 1942 and 1962.
The Tooth Fairy Has Fallen on Hard Times
Every year there’s a list of the best and worst careers. I don’t recall “tooth fairy” being on the worst list, but maybe we’ll see that in 2016. For the second year in a row the Tooth Fairy isn’t paying as much as he used to. Kids are only getting an average of $3.19 under their pillows, and that’s 24 cents less than last year.
Wait … $3.19 per tooth? And that’s less than kids used to get? When I was a kid I think I got at the most a dollar.
By the way, this info comes from Visa’s annual Tooth Fairy survey. Yes, really.
Can You Tell Me How to Get, How to Get to HBO?
Here’s another splash of financial cold water to the face: The makers of Sesame Street have struck a deal with HBO to air the classic children’s show on the premium cable network first. It will be shown on PBS too, but kids will have to wait nine months to see new episodes there.
Is this a good move? As Jessica Winter of Slate says, it might be good practically but not symbolically. It’s fine because a lot of kids stream the shows online these days and the money will certainly help. On the other hand, one of the reasons Sesame Street started was to give kids access to education and other information on public television. Seems odd that parents are going to have pay to get HBO for their kids to see it right away, and under the deal, the streaming that kids used to see on Netflix and Amazon will go away too because HBO gets the exclusive (though reruns of the show will still be shown continuously on PBS). The show will also eventually go from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. I guess this is a nod to the attention span of kids these days and video games and entertainment getting shorter shorter, faster faster!
The Web is having fun with the news though. Approximately 27,000 people made this joke, but it’s still funny:
— Brian Lynch (@BrianLynch) August 13, 2015
The Return of Johnny Carson
Late-night talk show reruns are weird now. Years ago, when The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman had a rerun, they would dip into their vast archives and pick an episode from years earlier. Now if Jimmy Fallon or Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel runs a repeat, it’s something recent. Often it’s something very recent, like a week or two ago. Seriously, this is what late night repeats are like now. They repeat episodes from just a week or two ago, and if they want to go way back they’ll air something from a month ago. It’s almost as if the shows don’t trust their audiences to understand that an episode might be a couple of years old and the references might be old or the jokes not as timely or a guest might not even be alive anymore.
But there’s hope! Antenna TV has made a deal with Carson Entertainment Group to show whole episodes (not just clips) of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. It will be called Johnny Carson (NBC still owns rights to the Tonight Show name), but we’ll know what it is. The shows will air every night at 11 p.m.
This is fantastic news. I’ve always wondered why the broadcast networks don’t air more classic shows. Instead each fall we get new shows we know will only last half a season or shows that are retreads of other popular shows or reality shows. Every year CBS airs I Love Lucy specials, and it gets great ratings. Wouldn’t it be great to see one of the networks air The Dick Van Dyke Show every Thursday night at 8?
It will never happen, and that’s why we have cable channels and DVDs.
The “New” New Colonel Sanders
Did you finally get used to seeing Saturday Night Live’s Darrell Hammond as the new Colonel Sanders in recent ads for KFC? Well, hopefully you didn’t get too used to him because he’s gone already! For some reason, Norm Macdonald, himself an SNL veteran, has taken over for Hammond in the latest ads for the chicken chain.
Howdy, folks. It’s me, the REAL Colonel Sanders, back again, but for real this time. pic.twitter.com/Zj30LPXmXB
— KFC (@kfc) August 17, 2015
Maybe they’re going to do this every few months, replace the person playing Sanders with a different cast member from SNL’s past. I’m looking forward to Kristen Wiig’s interpretation of the advertising icon.
National Back to School Month
When I was a kid — and I find myself starting many sentences with these words since I turned 50 — school always started after Labor Day. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that a big chunk of the U.S. goes back to school in August. How can kids go back to class and lug all that homework home in the hot, humid dog days of summer?
August is National Back to School Month, and it seems cruel to me that they’d make kids go back so early. Or maybe National Back to School Month is supposed to be celebrated more by parents. Sorry kids!
Reminds me of this classic ad from several years ago:
Upcoming Events and Anniversaries
The Wizard of Oz premieres (August 25, 1939)
Did you know that Warner Bros. has an official site for the classic movie?
Paris liberated (August 25, 1944)
Wikipedia has a detailed account of the military battle that lasted from August 19 to August 25.
First televised Major League Baseball game (August 26, 1939)
How James Thurber and The Saturday Evening Post changed baseball.
President Lyndon Johnson born (August 27, 1908)
The White House site has a detailed biography of the 36th President.
Protests at Democratic Convention (August 28, 1968)
SEP Archives Director Jeff Nilsson on 1968, a truly violent year in U.S. history.