'Hush, little baby, don't say a word . . .'

When our daughter was recently offered the chance of a lifetime to go abroad for ten days with her husband, my wife and I took on the equal chance of taking care of their five-month-old daughter. She came to our house with twelve pages of directions and half-a-Toyota-full of such equipment as up-to-date babies apparently need. We'd played grandparent before, but it had been thirty years since the little girl's mother was only five months old, and we had forgotten what a five-month-old baby most of all needs. Not just food, sleep, and love, but - during her waking hours - almost constant care. At first her span of self-amusement proved to be, at her cheerful best, about seven whole minutes. That simple fact we had long forgotten; had we remembered as much in advance of her arrival, our offer to babysit twenty-four hours a day for ten days might well have been less generous.

There were, of course, modern ways of easing parental (and grandparental) burdens, ways to which we were entirely new. Diapers, we found, now disposed, and had given up pins in favor of self-sticking tabs; well-to-do babies now slept on sheepskin, and were not strolled in strollers, but taken for walks in a kind of marsupial pouch that presumably kept them in mind of where they'd been housed for their earliest months. Preprepared formula nowadays came out of cans, and was dispensed in disposable plastic envelopes.

We were grateful. But all these matters of equipment were mere variations on what we'd experienced in the antique world of the 1950s. A five-month-old was still a five-month-old; and, if it worked, a pacifier was still a pacifier. But nothing was as pacific as we'd anticipated, and the constancy of care began to wear on all three of us.

The little girl was, from the first, game: She knew that we were other than her parents, she sensed that where she found herself didn't feel or sound or perhaps even smell like her native territory. Yet, since she knew no immediate alternative to the love we tried to make her feel, she took to us with a good grace that amounted to courage. Courage, even at only five months. But something in her could not forget the house where she had first felt at home. And we could not forget our round-the-clock responsibility.

At first, even when the little girl was asleep, we were wakeful, listening out for the steady breathing that reassured us, worrying unduly when she coughed or cooed to herself in ways strange to us. But our own uneasiness can only have made her feel uneasy. By Day Three she was eating less, and sleeping less between feedings. And we, already worn by alternating teething rings and bright-colored boxes and other such toys to keep her amused, turned back to our daughter's direction sheets to look for whatever advice we'd missed.

We found nothing. Nothing save the absence of one whole realm of directions, a section that might have been subtitled: Games and Lullabies. We began to remember only then what our trying to go-by-the-book had caused us to forget. We began to remember how we had not merely cared for her mother at this same age but had actively played with her.

Now, instead of transferring our grandparent-tensions to our new granddaughter, we tried buzzing a finger-bee down toward her tummy. No response, save for mild curiosity. Then we remembered what we had played with her mother. Of course. Patty-cake. ''Patty-cake, patty-cake, baker's man . . .'' And the little girl, too, remembered: She broke out all over with smiles.

We suddenly realized that as we'd tried to sing her to sleep in this strange home we'd been trying all the wrong tunes. ''Rock-a-bye, Baby'' relaxed her no more than as if she had known its fearsome lyrics. ''Knick, knack, paddywack, give a dog a bone'' merely made her more jumpy. But oh, how we learned to sleep as she learned to sleep from our singing ''Swing low . . .'' And how, in her grandmother's voice, she must have heard her own mother's ''Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Momma's going to buy you a mockingbird. . . .''

To the little girl's own mother, these games and songs were, quite naturally, too familiar to list for us. But as they came back to us by way of our granddaughter they were just such a familiarity as returned all three of us to new ease. As we learned to play with each other, and learned from old tunes to sleep, the little girl learned to trust us as part of her family; even her need for constant attention diminished, as we all learned all over again that recurrence is a form of reassurance. Nothing, after all, could be more reassuring to the grandparents of a five-month-old than to see her wake and - as she began to recognize us - begin to smile all over, from the excitement of her eyes and arms to dancing legs and toes that uncurled as she stretched herself toward us.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.