Toothing with Mimi

As what would have been my mother’s 94th birthday (January 18) nears, and housebound by the Blizzard of 2011, I am thinking of her, and of my snowless childhood in the Sunshine State. I wrote this in 2009.

In my early childhood, many days included a trip to the beach with my mother. Some days I came to swim or build sand castles, but often the churning sea was a decorative scrim, remarked only for the state of its tide — low tide being ideal for “toothing.”

By accident of prehistoric geography, the Florida beach town where I grew up is rich in fossilized sharks’ teeth. Vacationers line their suitcases with a bright array of scallops, clams and oysters, bivalves that the Atlantic disgorges split in half. Staunch shellers, pilgrims to the beach-combing meccas on the Gulf coast, would spurn the relics of a Ponte Vedra vacation.

Mom and I left mere shelling to the sunburned tourists whose blissful ignorance of sharks’ teeth worked to our advantage. Let them clamber over conchs with the ocean’s roar whistling inside: we kept our eyes peeled for more valuable unburied treasure. Make no mistake: our sharks’-toothing was a competitive sport, one where an 8-year-old and a 50-year old were evenly matched.

Beach Picnic, 1963

Heads down, we would pace the sand, eyes laser-focused to zero in on sharks’ teeth, black specks on the orange carpet of coquina. Trained by hours of toothing, Mom and I could readily distinguish all sizes and shapes of the tide-polished teeth from other black shells, imposters that conspired to fool our practiced eyes. To keep from poaching each other’s territory, we would hunt at a respectful distance, calling out triumphantly each time we scored a tooth. Occasionally I would feel a twinge of guilt when my younger, keener eyes gave me an edge over my acutely near-sighted mother, whose relative height put her farther away from the bounty at her feet. I eventually learned that it was unseemly to over-enthuse upon finding a small tooth, even though logic might argue that it was the proverbial needle in a haystack. In toothing, size definitely mattered, and the possibility of finding “the big one” was what kept us in the hunt day after day, year after year. Arriving home with stiff necks and sand between our toes, we would tally our respective takes before pooling our loot in a communal jar, claiming a proprietary interest only in exceptional specimens.

On my 18th birthday Mom surprised me with a gold necklace fashioned from one particularly fine tooth in our collection. I have worn it almost continuously since I left Florida for college and never looked back, and in the big cities where I’ve lived strangers regularly remark on my necklace. I enjoy their surprise when I tell them the tooth belonged to a shark millions of years ago and that I found it on a beach.

As I neared the age Mom had been in our toothing heyday, “Mimi” took to her bed to die. It had been many years since we had toothed together, decades since I had spent more than a few nights in my childhood bed. As her life ebbed I found myself alone on our familiar beach at low tide, my now-myopic eyes drawn downward by force of habit. At my toes lay a beautiful shark’s tooth nearly identical in size and shape to the one hanging around my neck.

I couldn’t wait to bring this tooth home to show Mimi in one of her few remaining alert moments, but her vision was failing and she was frustrated that she couldn’t see it, or the smile on my face, clearly. Relating how easily I had found the tooth, how it had seemed to call out to me, I placed it between her fingers. Turning it over to gauge its size and shape, she whispered: “Darn it.” Darn it that she hadn’t been there to snatch it up. Darn it that her life was ending while a few big ones lay undiscovered on our beach.

A few days before Mimi died I took the tooth to the same jeweler who had made my necklace and asked him to duplicate it for my elder daughter. I don’t expect her to wear her tooth as faithfully as I’ve worn mine, but the symmetry of giving it to her on her 18th birthday, which fell a month to the day after her grandmother’s death, seemed almost as perfect as the moment I found the tooth.

Along with a house full of books, photos and antiques, Mimi left behind a sharks’-tooth collection numbering in the thousands. (Several years ago my younger daughter passed a rainy vacation day counting1644 teeth in one of the jars.) Would my brothers and I cart these heirloom teeth home to display on shelves or tuck into drawers? Would future generations be freighted not only with yellowing photos of mysterious ancestors and envelopes of human baby teeth saved by the Tooth Fairy, but with bundles of sharks’ teeth, too? An idea came to me a few days before Mimi died: wouldn’t it be more fitting to return the teeth to the same stretch of beach where we found them?

And so, a short time later, on what would have been Mimi’s 92nd birthday, my brothers and I invited some of her closest friends to join us in remembering her by scattering these bits of prehistoric bone on the beach. I like to think of a younger generation of mothers and daughters finding “our” teeth, maybe even wondering why sharks’ teeth suddenly grew more plentiful along one stretch of beach. (Might we one day have to step forward to debunk the rogue scientific theories that explained this apparent fluke of nature?)

Repatriating our teeth felt like an original idea until I received a condolence card with a Hallmark message that seemed at once too trite and too apt: “Seashells remind us that every passing life leaves something beautiful behind.” Original or not, our time-lapse catch and release plan still feels like the right way to remember, and let go of, Mimi.

On the beach, wearing teeth (January 18, 2009)

March 2007


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