How many creepy childhood keepsakes are too many?

Why do moms hang on to our children's gross bodily castoffs?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 9, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Lock of hair with purple ribbon and a locket necklace (Getty Images)
Lock of hair with purple ribbon and a locket necklace (Getty Images)

As far as unsolicited pics men have sent me go, this had to be the worst. On a recent Sunday afternoon, my spouse went to his mother's home to dig out some paperwork and do a little maintenance. That's where he was when he sent me the photograph. It was of his hand. It was cupping, by my count, over two dozen teeth. Teeth of varying sizes and shades. Canines and molars and incisors. Teeth that will haunt my nightmares henceforth.

After a little light screaming, I quickly made like Naomi Watts in "The Ring" and shared the image widely among my friend group, hoping to dispel its curse. Naturally, there was plenty of validation of my horror. But there was also a surprising amount of recognition in there. "My mom had teeth in her jewelry box. Plus some hair!" one friend texted back. Another replied, "My mom kept her collection in a pill box."

Pause for a moment here to consider how many of our beloved moms and grandmoms across this land of ours are, this Mother's Day, harboring entire collections of human teeth.

Clearly channeling the zeitgeist, mother-of-four Victoria Beckham revealed last week to her Instagram followers that her youngest had just had a visit from the tooth fairy, and asked, "What do all the mummies and daddies do with all the collected teeth? I've got an entire bucket full of all my kids' teeth. What do we do with them?" I still don't know what to make of it that the most harrowing phrase I have ever read — "entire bucket of full of teeth" — originated not from Stephen King but a Spice Girl. But I do have to ask, hey, fellow moms. Are you okay? 

There are, I confess, a few discarded body parts in my own private vaults. I have, in a small blue container my old dentist used to give clients for just such occasions, all four of my (gnarly, freakishly large) wisdom teeth. I have, in separate Ziploc baggies, the first two baby teeth both of my daughters lost. I have a curl of hair from my firstborn's first haircut but my not my second's, because younger children always get neglected like that. That, to me, feels like a sufficient amount of corporeal detritus. As far as I know, neither my mother nor grandmother ever had any secret stashes of teeth or hair. Maybe we're just not a teeth keeping kind of clan.

Yet the urge to hang on to a piece of another person is a near universal human trait. I was raised Catholic, and growing up, there was nothing I loved like I loved like a saint's blood liquefying on a holy day. My favorite piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a magnificent reliquary containing, encased in crystal, a single tooth purported to have once resided in the mouth of Mary Magdalene. Half a world away, in Sri Lanka, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth houses an oversized relic said to be Buddha's still-growing tooth.

Relics aren't just for holy figures. In the Victorian era, the hair of a deceased loved one would often be fashioned into an elaborate wreath or a delicate piece of mourning jewelry. Today, there's an entire industry devoted to turning cremation ashes into rings and pendants. Physical mementos mark more than grief, though. And who likes keepsakes more than moms? We create traditions around burying our placenta; we hold on to umbilical cord stumps. We keep buckets — or at least generous handfuls — of hair and teeth in envelopes for our adult children to one day discover when they're just looking for the motor vehiicle registration.

The life cycle of baby teeth is an intimate, sometimes difficult process for both parents and children. In one of the most bittersweet passages of  P.L. Travers' "Mary Poppins," the young Banks twins are inconsolable to learn from their starling friend that they will no longer be able to converse with the birds when their teeth come in. Growing up is painful. And, as Michael Hingston wrote here a few years ago, "While there are many rites of passage in a person's life, the loss of a baby tooth is arguably the first — and, thus, the most frightening." You can see why we evolved ways of sweetening the experience.

"Perhaps the most widely practiced ritual, one that has been documented everywhere from Russia to New Zealand to Mexico," Hingston writes, "involves offering the lost tooth as a sacrifice to a mouse or rat, in the hopes that the child's adult teeth will grow in as strong and sturdy as the rodent's." Here in the US, the tooth taking-rodent likely served as the inspiration for the more benign countenance of the tooth fairy. But after the trade has been made, what is really supposed to happen to the loot?

A 2020 report from the survey site DentaVox found that 59% of respondents said that the best thing to do with baby teeth was "preserve them," while only 12% fully embraced tossing them in the garbage. The majority may be on to something — those old teeth could be of practical value. "Tooth banking" to preserve stem cells extracted from dental pulp has in recent years become a growing industry. As one tooth bank says, "Baby teeth are ideal candidates for stem cell banking because they have been exposed to lower levels of environmental factors."

But while the clinical research into the potential of dental stem cells for  fighting disease and healing injury has been intriguing, the applications are still limited. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentists simply calls tooth banking "an emerging science which may have application for oral healthcare." 

I'm sentimental about all kinds of things regarding my family. I have a box of finger painted drawings and an entire shelf of pottery that doesn't quite achieve Seth Rogen levels of mastery. I have ticket stubs and programs from school plays. And I will be the first to say that retrieving that first little tooth from underneath a pillow is a magical moment — albeit a challenge to find if you are not a fairy or magic rat. But I question whether, after doing this twenty times per kid, I was expected to keep a souvenir of every single experience.

Some day, decades after their final visit from the tooth fairy, I'd like to think my children may thank me for what they don't find tucked in an envelope in a long forgotten drawer. They can look through my belongings and know that while I have always loved every bit of them, at some point even a mother should be able to admit that she doesn't want a bucket full of baby teeth. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Commentary Customs Dentistry Health Mother's Day Parenting Tooth Fairy