Tough Going, Rabble Risers and a Feverish Pitch

by Christine Adams Beckett

Having previously chased two crawling babies in two different city apartments, I never knew the fear of the staircase as acutely as I did with my third child, born in suburban New Jersey to two house dwellers. The realization hit me as I was hauling 25 pounds of extra me up the stairs, a few weeks away from Delivery Day, when my feet swelled and my normally athletic self took more effort to drag up the stairs than it usually did. I actually held the hand rail and took one step at a time instead of two. Mid-flight I stopped and stared at the landing, just six more risers before me when it struck me like a wet diaper to the face: I have never had a baby in the suburbs before.

I glanced backward through the windows on either side of the front door, the focal point of this center hall colonial, and took in the brilliantly blooming cherry tree and a half a dozen cars parked along the opposite side of the street, most likely belonging to the patients of the orthopedist who lives and practices there. One solitary jogger zipped by the Pennsylvania bluestone walk that connected the street to my door, her long brown ponytail swinging behind her. As I sat down to contemplate the lack of urban diversion with a newborn, I was surprised to find that my center of gravity wasn’t what it was seven months earlier, and slid three steps down on my now ample derriere. Jostled by the jolt of the third step, I somehow forgot why I was headed to the second floor in the first place, and instead headed straight to the computer to surf for baby gates that would rival The Brandenburg in impenetrability.

I have tumbled down the steps two other times, once severely enough to create a raspberry on my right buttock that Mia Hamm would be proud to call her own. On that particular trip, I startled my sister-in-law from her toilette, who was visiting at the time, and she rushed to my aid in an amusing state of undress. I was carrying my baby at the time, and am proud and relieved that she made it through unscathed; but I was sore for days. The second was simple stupidity realized in a death defying tumble. Suburban house dwellers, be forewarned: you cannot bring three baskets of laundry to the basement all at once; and when you try to grab onto the handrail, just let go of the baskets, for the love of God!

Although no statistics exist that illustrate how dangerous stairs are, there is a a book (maybe only one) out there on the matter: The Staircase: Studies of Hazards, Falls, and Safer Design, by John A. Templer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are likely the second most common cause of accidental death, mostly older people (or I dare say, idiotic people who try to carry three loads of laundry to their basement on one 5’7″ frame.) But according to Templer, and Bill Bryson who writes about Templer in his At Home: A Short History of Place, most accidents are caused by poor design, bad lighting, the lack of handrails, confusing patterns on the treads, risers that are unusually high or low, treads that are too wide or narrow, or landings that are poorly placed, as to interrupt the rhythm of ascent or descent.

I was amused that Bryson’s whimsical book was interrupted by a chapter on stairs. Even Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for designing Central Park, obsessed over stairs and used a mathematician, Ernst Irving Freese, to construct a pair of equations making for an optimal riser and going, the step itself. The third part of essential geometry is the pitch of the staircase, which Bryson reports to be too slow going if less than 27 degrees, and far too tedious at anything more than 45.

Stairway at Monticello

Treacherously narrow stairs at Jefferson's Monticello

Thomas Jefferson paid no mind to such matters, as he thought the staircase a waste of real estate for his beloved Monticello. Instead, he tucked a windy, narrow, treacherous stairwell in an unused corner to preserve precious living space in a deceptively small house. In a recent NPR story about Monticello, there was an aside given by the tour guide to the interviewer regarding the narrow stairs, Jefferson’s view of economy of space and how he wasn’t willing to use it on stairs, but most interestingly: Mick Jagger was her only visitor who didn’t use the handrail. He’s as agile as we all assumed him to be.

My suburban baby turns out to be pretty light on her feet as well. She realized all my greatest fears by scaling the gate installed at the bottom of the stairs one afternoon as I dared to excuse myself to use the bathroom. The loud crash was not followed by a howling cry however, so when I came rushing out in a similar version of my sister-in-law’s undress, I found her unscathed. She was also at the top of the landing giggling with pride at all she had accomplished. I only wish I had seen how she pulled down the contraption without injury.

After countless trial runs, she has gotten adept at crawling up, and at shimmying down the goings on her diapered back side. She has recently graduated to using the railing with her hand as she uses her feet to ascend, all the while with a protective hand at her back. The lack of urban diversions with a newborn was not the issue I suspected it to be, either, with many a villager stopping by with home cooked suppers, a load of kids to entertain my older children and offers to help. Sometimes I got gallons of milk without even asking for them. One neighbor just sat with me while I held a sleeping baby for hours, reminding me that staring at the perfection of a newborn is sometimes much more fun with company. I didn’t need the diversions of store windows, a sea of strangers and decaf lattés. I tackled the stairs, and sometimes fell; but I had my sister-in-law, half naked and as exposed as me, there to help me back up again.