When I was a small child, my parents taught me to believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sand Man, and Jack Frost. The Sand Man was an invisible but kindly little spirit who came every night, just before bedtime, and gently sprinkled soft sand into the eyes of small children. When these same children would then rub their eyes, some adult or even the children themselves would draw attention to the rubbing of the eyes and say something like, “Oh, look! You’re rubbing your eyes. The Sandman must have been here,” and the child would understand it was time for bed. You could not argue with the Sandman.
Also, in those days, during my early childhood, we lived in a place that was very cold during the winter. In the wintertime, every morning, the glass on the windows would be covered with intricate glittering patterns of ice, beautiful swirling images that I was taught were the work of Jack Frost. Every night, while we were asleep, the tiny magical little fairy artist named Jack Frost would come and paint our windows. He was a busy guy.
At Christmas, at my house, Santa Clause always came to bring us presents early in the evening of Christmas Eve. I realize now Santa’s timing conformed to my mother’s ethnic origin, as Czechoslovakians reportedly are always visited by Santa early in the evening on Christmas Eve. Maybe he likes them best.
I vaguely recall my mother always served some traditional kind of oyster stew on Christmas Eve, although I can’t imagine we children were served oyster stew. Even now that seems like something only adults would like. She probably served my little brother and I hot dogs instead, which we would have received as special treats and enjoyed immensely.
After dinner, we would always bundle up, with warm hats and coats and boots, and go for a walk around the neighborhood to look at the Christmas decorations. In those days, the Christmas trees were always placed in front of living room windows and covered with colored lights that seemed especially beautiful when seen at night, when everything else was so dark.
While we were gone on our walk, Santa Clause would always come to our house and deliver the presents during our absence. We would just miss him, every time, but were greatly compensated by all the loot he had left, and the special holiday permission granted to children on that sacred night, for us to be overtly greedy, and make a lot of noise doing it. But my children were never taught about the Sandman. I don’t know why. And they didn’t get Jack Frost either. They grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and there isn’t much frost there and, as far as I know, no traditions have yet developed there on how to fool and delight children with tales of why the rain comes so continually and abundantly and usually so gently. I can imagine an Oregon Rain Fairy. She is wearing a lovely tutu and big rubber boots. Or maybe the Oregon Rain Fairy is a shiny elf in grey spandex with a wool scarf, an umbrella and swim fins and maybe a snorkel tube.
But my children did get to believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. For some reason - and I don’t know why - for them, the Tooth Fairy was a very big deal. Maybe it was all part of the excitement and celebration every time a child loses a baby tooth: the days of anticipation when the tooth begins to wiggle and gets looser and looser every day, the pride-of-ownership some children have, who will walk up eagerly to their family and friends or even strangers and say, “Look at this! I have a loose tooth,” then strain open their little mouths into very grotesque expressions and wiggle the pride-filled little hunk of tooth, while those spectators who intuitively understand the loose-tooth game, will make inarticulate sounds of admiration and approval.
There’s usually just a touch of fear too, for the young initiate who has never lost a baby tooth before, and an anxiety about whether or not it might hurt, when the tooth finally does come out. But when the baby tooth does finally break free from the little person who produced it, there it is finally, a thing of great value that your very own body produced, kind of like a pearl, and much more interesting and presentable than poop.
And, if you put it under your pillow when you go to bed, during the night, the Tooth Fairy will come and take the tooth and, in its place, she will leave you a special gift, something wonderful, like maybe your very own quarter, 25 cents.
We had some financial ups-and-downs while the children were small, but we tried to do our best. One of my grown children, Andrea, however, still remembers once, when she was little. It was late summer, and Andrea had left a newly harvested tooth under her pillow. In the morning, she awakened in happy excitement, confident of greater joy about to come. But when she put her little hands under the pillow, searching around for the gift, and when she finally pushed the pillow aside, rather than feeling happier, Andrea was disappointed, because what she found there was not a quarter. It was the best I could do at the time. It was a zucchini.
Iris, my second daughter, was also very intelligent and beyond her years in mature understanding and insight. So it disturbed me very much when - the morning after she went to bed with a baby tooth under her pillow - she came dancing into the kitchen with a sleepy expression of ecstasy on her face, clutching her new quarter and babbling on and on about how she had actually seen the Tooth Fairy, dancing about in a beautiful blue dress. Iris said she had awakened just as the Tooth Fairy was flying onto her bed, , watched her gently alight beside the pillow and begin to dance. The child described the dance of the Tooth Fairy with words of delight and with her own body, dancing around the kitchen with her arms raised, twirling and dipping and kicking and spinning around and rising up on her toes. “And she wore a blue dress,“ Iris repeated.
There was such happiness in her voice, some kind of childhood ecstasy, as if it were an authentic spiritual experience.
I was horrified, dismayed. This was an altogether excellent and first-rate child. As her mother, I could not allow her to lose her mind. It was my parental responsibility to protect her from dangerous delusions, and it appeared to me that this Tooth Fairy business had gotten completely out of hand. I needed to set her straight before any more damage was done.
So I sat her down and lectured her, gave her an intellectual antidote, told it to her straight, as I would have to an adult, because she was at least as intelligent as many adults, and I knew she would completely understand, if I would just tell her the truth. It didn’t matter than she was just a little girl. She deserved to hear the truth.
“Iris,” I said, “I want you to understand something. This is very important. You need to know there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy. Grown-ups just pretend there’s a Tooth Fairy. It’s a game we have to play with our children when we get to be parents. It’s just a make-believe game we play to make children happy.” I went on and on with a very convincing explanation.
Finally Iris spoke. “Oh yeah,” she said, standing up to me, ready to argue and defend her experience. “So then where does the quarter come from? If there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, then who takes the tooth and who leaves the quarter?”
I was still confident I had succeeded in moulding her mind. “Iris,” I said, in my most loving but authoritative tone. “There is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy. I take the tooth. I leave the quarter. I am the Tooth Fairy.”
Then something strange happened, something I had never seen before appeared on her sweet little face. Her expression changed, and she looked at me hard, not exactly with contempt, but more as if I had suddenly turned into something very stupid and disappointing in her estimate. She was also fired up, and she was not going to back down. How dare I question her story? Drag her down from an ecstatic experience even. How dare I?
Then she spoke, and her tone was also authoritative and heavy with meaning, powerful with righteous indignation, and aimed at me personally, “You,” she said, “You don’t even have a blue dress.”
That was it for me. I gave up. What more could I say? She was aloof and distant from me after that, for maybe two minutes. I never challenged her Tooth Fairy beliefs again. She’s all grown up now and she turned out pretty good, even excellent you might say. No harm done that time. Thank God.