The title of this essay is actually a folksy expression originally associated with horses. It seems that one of the best ways to get a sense of a horse’s age is to look in its mouth. As a horse gets older its gums recede, exposing more and more of the root… thus making its teeth appear longer. This is also the origin of the phrase ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth’… since it would seem rude to check the age of a horse one has just received for free.
So what, you are probably wondering, is my fascination with teeth… and age?
My 10-year-old daughter Ariella – our first child – lost her last baby tooth… yet another sign in a long line of signs I’ve been ignoring… signs that my baby is growing up.
As the resident tooth fairy, I am now in possession of the last tangible remnant of her childhood… bought and paid for like all the ones that came before. As I turn the tooth over in my hand, I can’t help feeling that I should have seen this coming. Like a predictable plot twist in a movie, there was plenty of foreshadowing and hinting… yet I didn’t notice.
Men in general seem to resist looking ahead, apparently preferring to revel in the comfortable present. I suspect that many fathers share this deliberate lack of foresight when it comes to their daughters. We smugly assume that they will always remain our little girls… and then we gasp in shock when we catch sight of the young women they inevitably become.
This past summer our extended family spent a week in a big old house on a private island on the southern coast of Cape cod. The setting among the dunes and beaches was magical, and the kids loved being so close to the ocean.
Late one afternoon after the rest of the family had returned from the beach, Ariella and I set off down the sandy path to have our own dip in the Atlantic. While I watched this child wade confidently into the surf, I was reminded of an afternoon almost exactly nine years earlier when I give Ari her first taste of the ocean a few miles south of where we stood (on Martha’s Vineyard). These two unremarkable events only a few miles apart, yet separated by most of her young life, triggered that special sense that parents seem to have… one I’ve always thought of as ‘the cinematographer’s view’.
As if holding up long strips of movie film to view individual frames, a parent sometimes has the ability to look at separate moments in time, and to superimpose them momentarily over each other… comparing, contrasting, and bursting with pride and astonishment at the graceful miracle we helped create.
As I stood on the beach drying off… enjoying that tight-skinned feeling that comes from that secret mixture of salt, sand and sun… I watched Ariella go through her ritual of drying herself. My heart skipped a beat as she instinctively made a wrap-around dress out of one towel, and then a turban out of another… precisely as I’ve watched her mother do countless times.
When did this woman-child learn to do this?
I noticed with a fatherly combination of pride and alarm that she no longer looked anything like a little girl. She unknowingly carried herself across the sand towards me with a swaying feminine gait, and the angles and lines of her athletic physique whispered barely audible hints of evening gowns and perfume in her future. But the hug she gave when she reached me, burying her face against my salt-tightened skin, still had that fierce, almost panicky power that it had nine years before as she clung to me in her sea-sodden diaper.
As we walked hand-in-hand up the sandy path from the beach to have dinner with the rest of the family, I had no idea that a small tooth in her mouth – the last of its kind – was beginning to work itself loose. If I had, I doubt I would have given it much thought. After all, from the first time I sprinkled a trail of glitter from her windowsill to her pillow, the tooth fairy had become such an old pro at handling teeth that one more was all in a night’s work.
In typical fatherly fashion… I didn’t anticipate the significance of this tooth until I had removed it from under her pillow and held it in my hand.
Ariella often (but not always), leaves notes for the tooth fairy. At first they were earnestly scrawled notes asking what the tooth fairy did with all the teeth (“…do you build castles out of them?”). Then they became slightly more sophisticated messages, with veiled hints that the tooth fairy might have a secret identity… an identity known only to certain wise little girls.
But she never fully let on that she knew. You see, the tooth fairy is a wonderful example of the willing suspension of disbelief. There would be nothing to be gained by any of the participants ruining the little charade… so we both continued to play our roles.
But this last tooth was wrapped in a note that was a bit different. Like the contrast between the adolescent girl walking on the beach and the earnest little girl hugs she still gives, the note was a study in contradictions. On the one hand it was written in a beautifully mature hand on a piece of paper towel she had dyed to look like some kind of cloth. But the note broke my heart with its innocent statement that could only have come from someone still partly entrenched in childhood:
I am heartbroken that Ariella and I will no longer be able to continue this little sham. The tooth fairy game has come to an end because Ari no longer has a reason to suspend her disbelief. She and I are now on the same side of the pillow. For Ariella, the tooth fairy went away yesterday… never to return. Yet I’m the one who’s sad.
When I started this post, I was working under the assumption that the title ‘Long in the tooth’ would be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Ariella’s march towards adolescence. But I see now it was a subconscious (and all too accurate) reference to her father.
Why didn’t I see that coming?
David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog (www.treppenwitz.com) and is an amateur beekeeper.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.