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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Long in the tooth

The title of today’s post is actually an old 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 as a gift.

So what, you are probably wondering, is today’s fascination with teeth… and age?

My 10-year-old daughter Ariella - our first baby - lost her last baby tooth. This is yet another sign in a ling line of signs I’ve been ignoring 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.

I’m the guy in the theater who is always surprised into spilling his soda, no matter how obvious and telegraphed the bombshell. I could watch ‘The Sixth Sense’ again today and still be surprised at the end. And don’t even get me started about the trauma that was waiting for me one hour, 12 minutes and 37 seconds into ‘The Crying Game’!

Men in general seem to resist looking ahead, apparently preferring to revel in the comfortable present. I suspect that many fathers share this willful lack of foresight when it comes to their daughters. We smugly presume that they will always remain our little girls… and then spill our sodas when we catch sight of the young women they inevitably become.

This past summer our extended family spent a week in a huge 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 the afternoon, almost exactly nine years before when I carried this squalling baby into the ocean a few miles south of where we stood (on Martha’s Vineyard) to give her first taste of the sea. 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 and 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 of another… precisely as I’ve watched her mother do a thousand times.

When did this womanchild 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 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 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 purple glitter from her windowsill to her pillow, the tooth fairy had become such an old pro at handling teeth that one more would be 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.

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 at the knowledge that the tooth fairy might have a secret identity… known only to certain wise little girls.

Truth be told, 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 all 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 on the beach and the earnest little girl hugs, 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:

Toothfairy

I am heartbroken that Ariella and I will no longer be able to continue this little sham. No, she and I are now on the same side of the pillow, and for her there is no longer a reason to suspend her disbelief. For Ariella, the tooth fairy went away yesterday… never to return. So why am I 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 into adolescence… but I see now it was a subconscious (and all too accurate) reference to her father.

Why didn’t I see that coming?

Posted by David Bogner on September 14, 2004 | Permalink

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OK, and if you know anything about me, you know I am crying.

Posted by: Jordan | Sep 14, 2004 2:42:42 PM

Wow. Just, wow.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Sep 14, 2004 6:03:01 PM

Ok, that is twice in two days that you have caught me with an excellent post. That was beautiful.

Posted by: Jack | Sep 14, 2004 6:10:26 PM

Jordan... We fathers of daughters should never be ashamed of our tears. :-)

Andy... Thank you, just thank you!

Jack... For every prince, there were dozens of frogs that wisdom dictated I 'kiss' with my delete button. Thank you, discerning reader, for noticing the difference.

Posted by: David | Sep 14, 2004 6:22:49 PM

My only complaint is that I wish I'd read this entry this before I went to work so that I wouldn't have to spend the morning at my desk with tears in my eyes.

That was simply beautiful and brings to mind the many notes Zoe has penned to the tooth fairy and how soon that will end for me as well. I'm not ready!

Posted by: beth | Sep 14, 2004 7:25:46 PM

David, once again I find myself hardly able to finish reading you before forwarding your writing on to friends and husband.

You are my most forwarded source. From the enlightening to the inspirational, from the motivating to the wistful - or slapstick, even, you are my favorite. Just the other day I could hardly finish reading "up a tree". My 15 year old has been up a tree way too many times this year. Thank you for putting it into words.

You come to Ra'anana to have a cup of coffee, mention New Paltz, and now I know what to do with my bottom of the pot coffee. How did you know I had finally threw out all my ice cube trays 3 days before in a fit of "why keep these around, I will never need them again"?

And, your Bum blebee piece made me stand up and walk around the room. It was so apt, the only person I could think of to forward it to was myself.

I could go on, but what I really need to do is comment and thank you more often, so the comments don't build up so much!

Shana Tovah and thank you!

Carol

Posted by: Carol | Sep 14, 2004 7:55:21 PM

Beth... after raking your boss over the coals last week, I'll bet a few tears will keep everyone pretty much out of your way for the rest of the day! See... there's always an upside! I know what you mean about not being ready for Zoe to be finished with little girl things, but I'll add one point that I left out of today's post:

I have a theory that Mothers handle daughters growing up much better than fathers do. I think this is because men are basically afraid of their wives on some level. Let me explain... they're not afraid in a bad way... but there is a great deal that men don't fully understand about women in general, and their wives in particular. They make peace with that 'not knowing', but it is always there like a mine field... waiting to bite them in the ass at unsuspecting moments.

When a father's little girl grows into a woman... she crosses that boundary from being a completely known quantity to being a partial mystery. All the physical, biological, emotional, and assorted other 'stuff' that goes on with a teenage girl is scary mojo for a father... uncharted waters, so to speak.

Shana Tova... Happy and healthy new year to you and yours.


Carol... To quote an earlier commenter; 'Wow, just wow!' I couldn't be more pleased... what a huge compliment. [blush]

Not that this is 'compliment for compliment', but I've had one of your 'greenhouse' paintings as the desktop picture on my computer at work for quite some time now... you are really quite talented yourself! Shana Tova!

Posted by: David | Sep 14, 2004 8:53:31 PM

Sniff...sniff. Your blog should have a tissue box rating.


Why does it go by so fast.

Posted by: Marjorie | Sep 15, 2004 1:01:32 AM

Marjorie... It you're crying when you read it, just imagine my state while I'm writing it. It's not a pretty sight.

Shana Tova.

Posted by: David | Sep 15, 2004 1:46:25 PM

Shana tova, David, and thanks for your wonderful posts. Like the others, I am a big fan of your writing!

Posted by: Gail | Sep 15, 2004 6:57:51 PM

Dear David, a happy New Year to you and all your beloved ones. How lucky your children are to have you as father. I mean it. (I chose my husband under this aspect: will he be a good father? Thank G-d, he is.) Keep up the beautiful writing and continue to share your insights with us.

Posted by: Lila | Sep 15, 2004 7:00:22 PM

Wow, I am 21 year old without children and this brought me to tears. It makes me want to call my father and tell him how much I love him. The comment you made about daughters growing up into woman hood and crossing a line where they are a mystery to their fathers; I totally understand what you mean by that. I can see the "fear" in my fathers eyes. I remember what it was like when I was little and was my daddy's little girl. I lost something in my relationship with my father the older I got. I am not able to talk to him like I used to. I am also not as affectionate as I would like to be. I am not sure why, maybe some sort of stubborness that developed. Your blog made me want to be that little girl again just to know the innocence of love one has for their parents when they are children.

Sappy... I know. lol

Posted by: Tracey | May 17, 2005 9:56:04 AM

So touching...and scary. My big boy is turning six in a few weeks and I'm running like mad trying to keep up with everything. The world turns so fast when we're not paying attention.

Posted by: Ayelet | Jan 24, 2006 3:47:01 AM

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