Wheres the baby? she asked before the front door had even closed behind her. Maybe it was something about the expectancy in her voice; maybe it was the little pearl buttons on her pale blue sweater set; maybe it was simply that Martha had known her for so long. Whatever the reason, Betty looked no older than twelve as she asked the question, and Martha felt a stab of sympathy for her.
Sleeping, Martha told her.
Betty turned immediately in the direction of the nursery and walked in without hesitation, a sense of entitlement trailing her like a scent. Marthas sympathy ebbed. So this was what it would be like to have the presidents daughter here, she thought.
In a few moments, the rest of the girls had left the embrace of the living room chairs to form a clucking, perfumed bracket around the sides of Henrys crib. It was a configuration they would resume any number of times in the many months that followed. And Henry, awake or asleep, in glee or discomfort, health or illness, would always be the exact focus of their six pairs of searching eyes. He would rarely disappoint the needs and hopes those eyes conveyed.
He will wake up at one oclock, Martha began, with the certainty of a fortune-teller. When he wakes up, he will need to be changed. He will then have his lunch. Eight ounces of formula, at room temperature. I will show you in a moment how to sterilize the bottles.
Do we get to play with him? Ethel asked, fingering the strap on her camera.
Martha scowled. When its your week to live in the practice house, you will of course prepare for and give all his feedings, including the ones in the middle of the night. You will take him outdoors for walks, maintain his crib and carriage bedding, bathe him, shampoo him, weigh and measure him, soak and wash his diapers
Wash his diapers! Grace said in horror.
Wash. His. Diapers, Martha repeated. She looked at the six women one by one, trying to make sure they were listening. Taking care of a baby, she said, is the only important job that most of you will ever have.
Only beatrice had brought a notebook, and while the girls resumed their places on the armchairs and sofa, she clutched it as if it was a kickboard and she was just learning to swim. A few years back, Martha mused, she had taught another kid like this. Dumb as a spoon. Nervous as a fish. Do we need to take notes? Beatrice asked now, dropping her pen.
Who didnt bring a notebook? Martha asked. Hands sprang up in unison, as if the girls were here not for a class but for a swearing-in.
Not everyone who studied home economics at the practice house was completely incompetent, in Marthas view. But even some of the most basic skillslike sterilizing a pacifier, say, without cloaking the place in the smell of burning rubberseemed at times to tax the students capabilities. Martha had grown up the child of an Army captain, and inefficiency bothered her almost as much as carelessness did. She understood that her growing inability to hide her impatience was the main reason that Dean Swift, the head of the Department of Home Economics, and President Gardner had insisted she take her sabbatical. And that Carla Peabody, the insipid young college nurse, had gotten to run the practice house in her absence. And that Martha had spent most of the previous few weeks trying to eradicate the last traces of her.
Other than the previous year, that had been the only time when the leaders of the college had intruded into Marthas life. She was determined that they would not do so again, and yet the shameful realityso completely at odds with her character and the impression she usually gavewas that she was as perfectly vulnerable to their wishes as a baby like Henry was to hers.
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