When my dentist gave me the bad news, I was naturally distraught over the possibility of losing half of my teeth. Even after years of religiously brushing, flossing and wrestling with my Waterpik, the entire lower left-hand quadrant as well as a few other strategically located molars had succumbed to periodontal disease, so eating anything denser than applesauce started to become a challenge. The one redeeming factor was that I’d be partially reimbursed by the Tooth Fairy.
I was introduced to the practice of exchanging my lost baby teeth for money when I was 5 years old. My mother told me if I put a tooth under my pillow, the Tooth Fairy would magically visit me at night and leave a dime in its place. Which, in the 1950s, was a pretty decent exchange rate for something I no longer needed.
As it turns out, the Tooth Fairy hasn’t always been embraced as an international phenomenon. During the middle ages, children were instructed to burn their lost teeth to save them from hardship. If they refused to incinerate them, they’d be consigned to eternity searching for their teeth in the afterlife. Pretty heady stuff for a 5-year-old.
The Tooth Fairy as we know her didn’t make an appearance in the United States until the early 1900s. In those days, she was characterized as a type of “Good Fairy” with a professional dental specialization who bore gifts, much like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As far as we know, she doesn’t live anywhere near the North Pole, she doesn’t have elf assistants and prefers to work surreptitiously at night. In Medieval Europe, parents scared the pants off their kids by telling them that if the Evil Witch beat the Tooth Fairy to one of their teeth, or even fingernails and hair, they’d be in big trouble. Possession of any body part gave the Evil Witch complete control over them for the rest of their lives. Some cultures went as far as instructing kids to feed their teeth to animals – preferably rodents – so that their permanent teeth would come back in the form of indestructible yellow stained, razor sharp rat’s teeth.
Of course, no one really knows much about the Tooth Fairy – what religious sect she belongs to or what she looks like. She’s not celebrated with any particular holiday, preferring instead to work more on a freelance, on-call basis. We don’t even know if there’s more than one. A 1984 study conducted by children’s author Mary Wells revealed that 74% of those surveyed believed that the Tooth Fairy was female. Twelve percent thought the Tooth Fairy was neither male nor female; rather, some sort of nocturnal eunuch who resembled a balding Tinkerbelle with wings and a wand leaving a trail of pixie dust wherever they went. Personally, I never saw any pixie dust. I was just happy for the dime.
There’s no clear consensus about what really happens to your teeth, once the Tooth Fairy leaves your bedside. However, a number of theories have emerged since the turn of the century. Some experts (kids) believe she uses them to build her castle in the sky, turns them into gas for her car, plants them as seeds in her garden to grow kids or grinds them up to make fairy dust.
By the 1980s, the value of lost teeth started to climb. Tracking the exchange rate for lost dentition, Wells found that discarded baby teeth were holding fast with the consumer price index and increased to $2.00 during the previous 25 years. A 2013 survey by Visa Inc. found that American children received on average $3.70 per tooth. I thought I was lucky when she increased my reward from a dime to a quarter. Not to be outdone, some wealthy parents have catapulted their kids out of the realm of loose change by leaving behind expensive gifts under their pillows like iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and the keys to new BMWs – even if they won’t be able to drive them for another 10 years.
When I got older, I started pushing the envelope for what the Tooth Fairy might reward. After I’d gone through all of my baby teeth, I left four wisdom teeth under my pillow. Then, I tried leaving my old retainer to see if she thought it was worth anything. That was followed by a worn out bridge my dentist took out during a lengthy root canal. I thought considering how much I spent to have them installed, they ought to be worth something as trade-ins, even in their current condition.
After I left home and got my first apartment, I was still in the dark about what the Tooth Fairy would or wouldn’t reward. I kept leaving her gifts under my pillow even though I was fairly certain that there wasn’t a Tonsil or Adenoid Fairy. Then came the appendix that exploded after I was rushed to the ER. When I woke up in the morning, it was obvious that the Tooth Fairy hadn’t paid me a visit. There wasn’t a dime to be found – just a bloody mass of hazardous biological waste material and complaints from my roommate about the smell.
As I started getting older, more significant body parts started failing. I continued leaving them under my pillow with written instructions in case ruptured spleens, torn anterior cruciate ligaments and cirrhotic livers were outside her purveyance and she needed to refer their pickup to one of her colleagues. When I lost a thumb during an industrial accident, I tucked it under my pillow as well and hoped for the best. My medical insurance was willing to reimburse me $1750 for it because it was on my dominant hand. Surely, the Tooth Fairy could do better than that.
When one of my kidneys failed, I tossed it under my pillow, too. Still, no reimbursement. It could have had something to do with getting a new one from a generous donor. The economy being what it is, I can understand that the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t be willing to reward me for something that had already been replaced by a better model.
The final test came after I had both of my knees replaced with artificial, titanium models. The original knees were significantly larger than a 5-year-old’s bicuspid, smelled to high heaven and made a bigger lump under my pillow. I surmised that being as large as they were, it might take the Tooth Fairy a little longer to make transportation arrangements. She might even have to make two trips, so I allowed her a little extra time. But, she never came. I never received anything from the nocturnal Tinkerbelle.
Growing frustrated that I wasn’t getting paid for my donations I finally discovered that the work of the Tooth Fairy is really that of well-meaning parents, specializing in the baby teeth of children between 5 and 7 years old. She wasn’t interested in transplanted livers, cataracts, skin grafts or the plethora of discarded human tissue adults lump into the aging process. And since I live alone, it’s unlikely that my parents would sneak into my condo at night just to exchange a quarter for a ruptured spleen.
If I’d known that I only had a two-year window and 20 baby teeth to avail myself of the Tooth Fairy’s generosity, I might have voluntarily knocked out more of my teeth – even the permanent ones. I could have used the money.