Matthew Lickona gets kisses from first baby

Fin tries to eat the world.

When I was in college, some of the tutors would bring their families up to campus on Sundays to attend Mass and stay for brunch. When your school has only 200 students, the influx of several large (4- to 11-child) families swells the ranks, and or tiny chapel was full to bursting at the 9:00 Mass.

So many people in such a small space sets up a vibration that tickles an infant's vocal chords. Our chapel lacked a cry room, so when a baby decided to break a reverent silence or interrupt a profound reading with a self-asserting howl, a parent would usually rise and carry the howler through the back door. By the time Mass was half over, a row of parents stood outside, looking in through the half-open back windows, bouncing, rocking side to side, and praying. Afterwards, children spilled like water into the cafeteria, flowing through every low place, babbling merrily. The whole experience left us nonfamily men feeling like we'd been invaded.

Perhaps that's why a friend of mine used to say of infants, tongue only halfway in cheek, "They're little more than beasts at that age. Eat, sleep, and poop." Five months in, I know better, though I am eating, sleeping, and pooping are at least as important to Finian as they are to the rest of us. I know better because his interest in eating extends beyond his efforts to hand-pump Deirdre's breast to make the milk flow faster. He wants more than nourishment; he wants to join us at table.

Eating is very important in our young family. When we cashed in the stock (a gift from my grandfather) that allowed us to buy a house, we spent a chunk of the extra cash on a maple slab of a table. As it stands, the table is a large square; with the leaves, it will seat maybe ten. The chairs go beyond rustic to medieval. A worthy setting for Deirdre's dinners.

My wife is an excellent cook who enjoys her work most of the time. She already has the cook's knack, the freedom from a slavish devotion to measuring utensils and recipes. "Most recipes don't give you enough sauce," she says. For my part, I pick the wine, but my strength is as an eater, a grateful and adoring audience for her culinary performances. Some husbands will give lingerie as a sort of selfish gift — I give cookbooks.

Fin knows our devotion to dinner, and he demands to be a part of it. Seated in a bouncy seat on the floor, he complains until he sits upon a lap, head pecking over the rim of the plate, lips puckering in wonder at the fest that lies before him. Out darts a hand into the Gorgonzola-onion-tomato sauce. Then, a pleading reach for a fork, placed just beyond his grasp. If we pick our food up to eat it, his eyes follow it to our mouths, full of the accusation that we have cheated him. At four months, he got ahold of an ear of corn, unbuttered, unsalted, and probably tasteless, but he rolled it to himself and gnawed away with his gums. Happy to imitate us. On occasion, we give him a wine-dipped finger to chew, and he will attack the rim of a wine glass, as if biting and licking will make it yield its treasure. At five months, he has managed to hold a cup of water to his lips, tip it back, and drink. This morning, he negotiated a spoon into his mouth.

He imitates us elsewhere as well. During a smooch with Deirdre, I heard a distinct smacking sound. I opened my eyes and looked over to find Fin, his intent gaze fixed on us, his pursed lips smacking away. And he tries to speak. Walker Percy, in The Message in the Bottle, asks, "How can a child learn to speak a language in three years without anyone taking trouble about it, that is, utter and understand an unlimited number of sentences, while a great deal of time and trouble is required to teach a chimpanzee a few hand signals?" Further proof that Finian is more than a beast — he is a conversationalist. He is already at work constructing the shell of language, the sounds that are its external trappings.

Back and forth we go; he strains to make the tiny circle with his mouth that will produce "ooooh" instead of "aaaah"; I wait for him to stop and then answer in kind, finishing with a grinning "eeee." WHen he sits in my office, I turn from my work and chatter at him from time to time, and when I do, his face lights up and his jaw starts working. A week ago, he discovered his tongue, and as he chews on it, he searches out the sounds he can make with this new food.

He is becoming social. A favorite position is being held by one parent while looking at the other, suspended in a security between us. His natural tendency to grab and stuff things into his maw makes for "Fin kisses," wide-open mouthing of my chin and nose. He gets excited when he meets our friends' babies. And along with his sense of others, he is developing a sense of self. The mirror is the new surefire pick-me-up.

On a more material note, he is rolling over and sometimes sitting up — the days of babyproofing are almost upon us. Our boy has what seems to me a gender-characteristic fondness for dangerous things — plastic bags, pill bottles, a sharp-ended curtain rod — and yesterday, he attempted his first dive from the couch. Deirdre says he's becoming more like a baby every day — he's certainly becoming less like a beast.

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