When I was five, my first tooth became loose, a common enough event in a five-year-old’s life. I loved it. To this day, I still have deeply satisfying dreams of loose teeth, the satisfying eradication of that itch with a good hard wiggle. I wanted to join the elite club of gap-toothed kids in my kindergarten. Also, the tooth fairy. Finally, I’d earn a little cash.
Perhaps I wiggled a little too hard because when I presented my lower jaw tooth to my parents after supper, there was blood. “Oh, God, oogey,” my mother said, using one of her trademark words. My father dashed into another room.
It was determined that my tooth was too loose to stay in for the night. What if I swallowed it in my sleep and choked to death? Neither parent was able to squelch their heebie-jeebies enough to yank it out, and I was inexperienced in these matters, so the decision was made. We’d go to the store.
The store was owned by my great-grandmother, a short, stout Hungarian immigrant universally revered by everyone in the family. My grandfather, Poppy, worked there; while he had a degree from Notre Dame and master’s from Yale, he was a good and dutiful son and went into the family business. With nine children of his own, there was little that fazed him.
So we made the trip. It was thrilling for me, going to the store after suppertime, when my siblings would be going to bed, the rare treat of being alone with my mom. The ride over the hills to the store had a whole new feel, since it was evening now, and we never went over to the store at night.
The store was a tiny corner market that sold everything from chicken breasts to scouring powder. It was a magical place; rows of candy behind the counter, a bread display that we could hide behind and spy on the customers, the sepia-tinted windows of the deli case. My great-grandmother let us drink Yoo-Hoo and eat nut candy, and visit her strange and mysterious apartment in the back, filled with soft couches and lace doilies and the magical drinking bird.
We went to present my loose tooth to Poppy. He touched the tooth—just grazed it with his big, thick butcher’s fingers. “It’s ready,” he said. Oh, the joy!
We went into the back, into my great-grandmother’s kitchen, and Poppy got his tools. Thick black thread, scissors, some tissues for the blood. With great patience and surprising delicacy, he tied a loop around my baby tooth and knotted it. For some reason, he tied the other end around the doorknob of the open kitchen door. “On the count of three,” he said. “One…two…” and he slammed the door shut.
I felt a tug, heard a ping, and my tongue found the wondrous, fleshy cavern.
But my tooth was gone. We all got down on our hands and knees to look for it, but it must’ve fallen into the heating grate, because we just couldn’t find that sucker in Great-Gram’s immaculate kitchen.
“I’m sure the tooth fairy will still come,” my mom said, and Great-Gram told me to go to the store freezer where the ice cream was kept and pick out whatever I wanted. (I got a toasted almond bar.) The tooth fairy did come that night; I think I earned a dollar and got a new toothbrush, besides.
But the best part of that night was my grandfather, such a busy man, so many kids, so many grandchildren, with his gentle focus only on me. It was rare to have that kind of undivided attention from him, and I loved him so much that I didn’t have words for it.
I saved every loose tooth I could for Poppy and his string method. And when he was very old, a widower after 67 years of marriage, and I was staying with him one night to make sure he was safe, because he was forgetting things and people, I said, “Poppy, do you remember when you pulled out my first tooth?”
And he did. Right down to every detail.