When I was five my parents took me to a family gathering. I wouldn’t walk into the house.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dad.

“Too many kids,” I answered.

“How many exactly?” asked Dad.

Oh. Well. I liked counting. I eased into the living room and before I knew it I was crossing the room to where I could see all of my young cousins, including the ones behind the grand piano. I informed my parents that there were twenty-seven, but Mom and Dad were now busy talking with the adults and I was still feeling too shy to approach any of my cousins.

I looked for a toy I could play with on my own. The living room was disappointingly full of adult decor. A striped glass vase as tall as me, so delicate I worried my mere presence would make it shatter. A pale couch that was sure to stain if I gazed on it for more than a few seconds. White-painted branches of the type to poke somebody’s eye out, probably mine.

A long row of tables was set for a meal. A cat watched me from underneath, twitching its calico tail.

Bedrooms had toys. I went into one and spied some wind-up chattering teeth. My favorite! I liked to see how many wind-ups I could keep clacking at one time, and interestingly so far that number was twenty-seven, the same as the number of kids I had just counted. Here there was only one wind-up toy, but that was better than nothing. I picked it up, looking for the winding mechanism, disappointed at not finding one. The toy was broken into two pieces, the top and bottom teeth, but I could still have fun with it. I could turn the kitty I’d seen into a Cheshire Cat. I went back to the table in the living room to find it.

“Where are Uncle Pete’s teeth?” called an annoyed adult voice. This gave me two facts. First, the teeth were real. Two disgusting chunks of Uncle Pete’s face had somehow broken out of his head and snuck away from him. Second, I would be caught with the loathsome things. So I quickly thrust them into the nearest hiding place and sidled away.

A child shrieked, “I’ll find Uncle Pete’s teeth!”

Every single one of the twenty-seven children took this as a challenge to find the chompers first. All hell broke loose. It was as if somebody had fit my cousins with jet packs and sole springs. They bounced and sprang and leaped and crawled, running this way and that, peering behind tasseled cushions and under Persian rugs.

So as not to single myself out as the culprit, I joined them, zooming like a pool ball from the fireplace to the French window to a spindly-leg table, under which I crawled so I could watch the festivities without getting bumped. One intrepid six-year old climbed the brocade floor-length curtains, sure that the teeth had somehow chewed their way up to the valence. A snub-nosed girl wielded a fireplace poker like a lightsaber to fend off imaginary fang monsters.

Uncle Pete stood watching, eyes wide with amusement. Then he shouted with toothless enunciation, “Firss one to find my teef gets a big ol’ sloppy kiss!” That stopped the children in their tracks.

Soon we sat down to a meal. My mother dipped a serving spoon into the chocolate pudding to give Uncle Pete something that wouldn’t need chewing. “Oh!” she shouted in surprise, holding out a  wobbly brown spoonful of Uncle Pete’s teeth.

There was a moment of stark quiet while everybody stared and I squirmed. Now there would be an interrogation, and I would be found out. There would be no dinner for me, not even chocolate pudding, which was no longer appetizing anyway.

“You win!” shouted Uncle Pete to Mom, giving her a dramatically loud smooch on the cheek.

“It’s the start of a new family tradition,” said Dad. “Find Uncle Pete’s teeth!”

My mother, bless her soul, laughed so hard she couldn’t hold up the spoon. Everybody else laughed too, and so did I, to hide my misdeed. But also because it was funny. And I vowed that when I was as old as Uncle Pete, I would keep my teeth in my mouth, and never let them sneak off on their own. 

Photo: seb-p34k-hamel on Unsplash.com

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