The first time we forgot to fulfill our tooth fairy duties, I declared that the tooth fairy is really quite old and sometimes she gets too tired to finish her rounds in one night. The disappointed, gap-mouthed child took this in stride, declaring that any fairy old enough to have gathered even his own grandmother’s teeth was surely very old indeed.
The next time we forgot to trade a tooth for money (this became frustratingly habitual), I distracted my tearful, toothless daughter by announcing that the tooth fairy was getting a bit confused in her advanced age, and perhaps she left the money in the wrong place and forgot the tooth? The kids and I went on a treasure hunt, peeking under every cushion in the house while my husband slipped a dollar under a mattress and encouraged our daughter to look there.
After this routine played out several times (I’d guess the tooth fairy had a 50% success rate of actually removing a tooth from under a pillow and replacing it with a dollar), my kids began to lament the tooth fairy tradition, because surely, if she was so confused now, would she even know what teeth were by the time their children lost teeth? Spencer, four at the time, piped up that perhaps he could become the new tooth fairy when he was all grown up! Jacob and Abbie, then 6 and 8, sagely informed Spencer that he was a person, not a fairy, and the only hope for a tooth fairy in the future would be a new fairy, though they applauded his sense of duty to future generations.
Around the same time that our three eldest children were losing many teeth, we were preparing for the arrival of our youngest son. My husband, our kids, and I were walking across the parking lot of a big box store that supplies every possible infant need. I was massively pregnant and wearing the awful yellow t-shirt and navy blue shorts that made me look like a weeble-wobble gone wrong, but were the only things I could bear to wear in the July heat.
“Why are we here?” asked Jacob, our eldest. “This store is so boring! Doesn’t the baby have enough clothes by now?”
My husband waggled his eyebrows, then looked at the children seriously and said, “Oh, we’re not here to shop. This is where they keep the baby spanking machine. You know, in case the baby is naughty.”
The two older kids looked amused and exaggeratedly horrified and Spencer, almost five and not yet adept at recognizing fiction when we tossed it about, looked at me, concerned. I gave him a big wink and said, “Oh, yes, this is where they keep the baby spanking machine now. When you guys were small, we had to drive all the way across town so this is very convenient!”
Less than a week later, our youngest child Carter arrived in the world and the kids were crouched around me on the bed, petting his head. So new! So small! So magic! I settled Spencer cross-legged and laid the baby in his arms and Spencer looked at his face and gazed at the wee, wrinkly fingers and told him, “You’re kind of lucky because we don’t hit in our family. The baby spanking machine isn’t even real.”
In some essential way, we built our family identity on these fabrications, both on the stories themselves and the habits of creating and maintaining them. Some of the stories came pre-installed: hiccups come from the toy box, and if anyone starts eating before the family says grace that person will suffer a stomachache, both of which came from my mother’s side of the family. Most we made up on the fly, sometimes to protect our parental butts as in the case of the tooth fairy, some just because. Some we made sure the kids knew were inventions because they would be scary otherwise (I never actually wanted my kids to think we were going to spank anyone), and some we told quite seriously.
I love the mythologies of childhood, and I wanted them for all the time. For several years, I had all my kids absolutely convinced that UPS delivery people are Santa’s elves, and not only do they deliver the Christmas gifts so Santa doesn’t exhaust himself on Christmas Eve, but they’re out in the world finding out what kinds of things kids would like to have for Christmas. At least two UPS delivery carriers deserve thanks from me for playing along when one of my kids announced their Christmas desires to them.
When I met my husband Brian, my children were four and 6 and his son was 2. Brian was adamant that he would never lie to his son. Noble in theory, but I was aghast. “What about all the magic lies? And the fun ones? And the ones that save them from getting their hearts broken too young?”
Eventually, we agreed, because kids make storytelling so easy, and so often start the stories themselves. When friends lost their baby to SIDS, Spencer was so deeply sad for the parents, he drew pictures and described scenarios in which he flew a spaceship to heaven and brought the baby home to his grieving parents. I listened to my kids spinning wild fabrications for each other, and listened to them go along with those stories because so what if a story is not factual? Strict adherence to facts is not necessarily what makes a story true, and I hope all our mythologies tell some truth of our family.
If you come to our house for dinner, and you accidentally pass a little gas at the table, we’ll remind you to be careful not to step on the ducks. I hope you’ll play along.
Illustration by Christine Juneau