“Lovely baby Flooooooraaaa… we’re in a tuxedo and you are groooowwwwing…” Phoebe sings in a soft falsetto, as she pets the new baby. “You have a braaaiiin, it’s a little one–”
”Don’t thump her head like that, darling, it’s not a melon.”
“You have skinnnn….”
To be honest, it’s all I can do to keep from snatching Phoebe’s hand away. One of the most disconcerting aspects of having a newborn in the house is how appallingly large and lumbering one’s other children instantly become. When my husband and I made our desperate 3:00 A.M. dash up Massachusetts Avenue to the hospital where Flora would arrive a short time later, we left behind us a youngest daughter slim and delicate of limb. When the baby and I returned two days later, Phoebe, at four, had transformed into a muscular giantess.
She is, however, a smiling, singing giantess whose heart appears in danger of breaking, so I will not snatch her hand away. From experience I know that Flora will survive a certain amount of manhandling; from experience I know that the heretofore-youngest child needs love-bombing when a new baby comes home. I lean over and drop a cluster of kisses on to the nape of Phoebe’s neck.
“How old is she?” the child asks in normal conversational tones.
“Oh, I thought she was six months or something.”
“Well, kind of. She’s actually nine months old if you count from when–”
The door opens and someone knocks.
“Can I hold her?”
“Have you washed your hands?”
“Of course.” Molly approaches the bed with ten dubiously clean fingers outstretched.
Molly halts, spins on her heel, and disappears. There is the sound of ostentatious splashing from down the hall, taps being turned off, and back she comes. “Of course with soap,” she says scornfully, lifting Flora into her arms and cradling her. “Hello, dumpling,” she coos to the pink sleeping object, “hello, little fattycakes.”
Violet comes into the room. “Hello, you fat, low, common, barge woman,” she says to me, with a broad smile. Violet has been listening to audiotapes of The Wind in the Willows during breaks in the home school day, and has taken to quoting from it. She waggles a finger in Flora’s oblivious face. “Hello, baby.”
“Hey,” I object, “I’m not a low, common barge woman. Though I’m definitely–”
“Mummy, my phone’s ringing,” Phoebe interrupts, pointing to a calculator balanced on a pile of folded baby blankets. “Can you get it?” I hand it to her and she answers it.
“Hello?” she says in her falsetto again, “Oh, hi! Yes, I’m just here in my Mummy and Daddy’s bedroom with my new baby sister…”
By this time my husband has arrived with coffee for both of us, followed by Paris, who leaps on to the bed and into what used to be my lap.
“Careful, Paris!” Molly and my husband say at the same moment. Molly deposits the baby on the fragrant new lamb fleece by my knees. Paris springs on to all fours and, like a panther at a watering hole, drops his face into Flora’s.
“Hello, funny girl,” he greets her, nose to nose. “Goo.”
The baby grimaces, stretches, and opens one eye. “Look,” Phoebe cries, “When she lifts up her leg, she’s saying, “Look at my leg!””
“Goo,” says Paris again. “Man, look how red she is. Do you think she has a fever?”
“In Japan, the word for baby is aka-chan,” says my husband, gazing rapt at his newest daughter. “It means ‘little red’.”
“Hello, little red,” say several voices at once.
What is it about new babies that makes everyone constantly hail them? I do it myself: If I leave the room to get a tissue, or a fresh diaper, invariably I must announce my return with some fresh, inventive remark such as, “hello, Flora,” or “hello, little baby.”
Granny appears at the open door and smiles. “Hello, baby,” she says warmly to the object of everyone’s fascination, then, more briskly, “Children, come back downstairs and tidy up your breakfast things, please.” One thing is for sure: By the time Granny is finished with them, our oft-lackadaisical children will be so ship-shape you’ll be able to bounce a dime off them.
Paris waits until everyone else has filed out before tucking in beside my husband and me. “She’s so cute,” he says, and then, “what I want to know is: When can we go on a field trip?”
“Soon” I promise, “Once I get my strength back. Remember, I’ve been carrying this baby since right after Christmas. From now on, things are going to be a lot less, well, freighted around here.”
“And will we go to the zoo?”
“And will we do outdoor science experiments?”
“You will,” says my husband.
Paris sighs with relief. “That’s great. So you’ll be able to be a proper Mummy again?”
To My Readers: Rather to my own surprise, but with confidence that it’s the right thing, I’ve decided that this will be the final installment of The Fever Swamp (at least for now–for like the answer to the inevitable questions about family size, “So, are you done?,” I daren’t quite say the Swamp is finished for good. Who knows?). Thank you to all of the gracious, intelligent people who read and enjoyed the columns, and who wrote so often and so kindly to me. And thanks also, I suppose, to those of you who loathed them. It is always a pleasure épater la Gauche.