By: Anne Gisleson
May 5, 2017

One in a 25-part series of nonfiction stories about objects of talismanic significance. This is the second volume in the PROJECT:OBJECT series. Please subscribe to the P:O newsletter; and purchase P:O apparel and accessories — all profits will be donated to the ACLU!


For about ten years my husband and I shared a massive dresser that we recently decided to replace with something less oppressive. Cleaning out the narrow top drawers, useless except for collecting detritus, was liberating. But one thing I could not throw away was a tiny, lumpy, white envelope, which was sealed and handed to me about twenty-five years ago, and which I have never opened.

What I remember most about having my wisdom teeth removed: twilight anesthesia snaking through my limbs, a photograph of the handsome oral surgeon’s boat on the wall, the crunching, tugging and crumbling in my mouth of the once useful parts of my body, built over years from my own DNA. But as soon as they were extracted, wrapped in gauze (you can feel it through the envelope), and returned to me, they defected to the mute world of objects. Even so, I could never manage to throw them out. I have moved them to seven different apartments and houses, and probably as many dressers. Over the years, contact with them would cause a frisson of fear and revulsion but also ancient relief.

Around the time of that surgery, in my early twenties, I briefly lived in Italy and when visiting medieval towns would track down their elaborate reliquaries: the head of St. Catherine of Siena, illuminated by depositing a 200 lira coin in a box; St. Anthony’s tongue in Padua; St. Thomas’ finger in Rome. Relics sometimes held so much authority that warring towns would strategize to steal them first in order to dominate and demoralize.

Though white was a popular color for medieval reliquaries, my little envelope holds no conquering power. The teeth are my momento mori, a reminder of the finite materiality of my body, the smallness of my existence. I can’t let go of these stony fragments of myself, snapped off from the continuum of thousands of years of human reproduction, helping an oral surgeon fuel his boat, helping me maintain domestic contact with death.

During the dresser cleanout I’d revealed the story of the teeth to my husband, and weeks later our younger son lost one of his. After playing tooth fairy, my husband came into our room and asked, “What should I do with it?” He grinned with his new knowledge. “You want to put it with yours?”

He held it out to me; it was a tiny incisor with a bright spot of blood and gum at the root. I pointed to the envelope’s new accommodations, a knock-off Second Empire bedside table with a marble top and prettily carved drawer, a few inches from where I was lying.


TALISMANIC OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | Judith Zissman on SPINDLE WHORL | Amy Fusselman on BOX OF PENCILS | Josh Glenn on MONKEY WHIMSEY | Mike Watt on DASHBOARD TOTEMS | Gordon Dahlquist on CLAY FOX | Mark Kingwell on ZIPPO | Jennifer Schuessler on BEER-CAN CHAIR | Anne Gisleson on WISDOM TEETH | Ben Ehrenreich on CHROME LUMP | Matthew De Abaitua on HATCHET | Ty Burr on INFLATABLE KING KONG | Jacob Covey on ARGUS COIN | Jessica Helfand on PILL BOTTLE | Shelley Jackson on IMPUNITY JANE | Jennifer Krasinski on LEO’S LIGHTER | Molly Heintz on EVIL EYE | Mark Frauenfelder on MARTIAN FINK RING | Amanda Fortini on PRAYER CARD | Ed Skoog on MAMMOTH IVORY | CONTEST-WINNING STORY: Seth on PEANUTS PAPERBACK.


SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018). 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE . ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.


Codebreaking, Spectacles