Yesterday, Rosie unloaded the contents of my lowest bookshelves while I frantically rifled through my students' essays and packed my briefcase for the evening class. She was quick, quiet about it--uncharacteristic of her usual boisterous exploits. My initial response was one of annoyance--empty shelves to dust--stacks of books to clean up. The older two children had vanished into the pack of neighborhood children on the street behind ours. I doled out their kisses, slathered them with sunblock, and sent them off--collapsing against the doorframe as they blended into the wild, delighted group.
It wasn't so very long ago that this house was overrun by infants day and night. Their soft voices, learning the language around them...the stacks of impossibly tiny diapers...seamless days spiraling out one after another from the burst of sunrise to the gentle sparking of dusk. Now--their lives are ruled all year by school bells and crisp assignments, neat rows of desks and chalk-dusted clothes. Summers of running over the neighbor's lawns and hiding in tree-forts...my voice tethering them to the Earth calling their names for lunch--dinner--bedtime. I remember this so well from my own catalogue of memories.
Rosie is the baby--the last to fly the nest. I catch sight of her thick fingers piling the books up and turning pages. She is silent, curiously regarding the letters on the page. Books bulge beneath her new "big-girl" undies where she sits "reading". They form collapsing towers all around her and she is mesmerized.
Instead of scolding her for the mess, I sit down in the fortress of words and start reading random passages from random books. I read with my daughter's fierce interest and passion--and lack of attention to detail. I am reminded again of Anne Fadiman's book, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, and the "ancestral castles" of her own childhood. She also speaks of a sensuous "carnal love" of books--the kind where pages are bent and torn, or swollen from accidental bathtub water, the kind where ink underlines whole sections of text, and coffee stains line the margins.
My baby, with her fist full of pages, her upended sippy cup, and her haphazard collection of books is a lover in this purest sense. I could pull her down from her perch and clean the shelves and restore order. I could insist she leave my books alone and permit only board books until she learns the reverent, "proper" way of handling them. I could tell her "no" in that tone of voice mothers of two year olds know the world over--but, I am busy reading in an ardent, book-worshipping heap beside her. Fadiman notes, "The courtly loving book mode simply doesn't work with small children," (42), and she is right. Around here, books become living, breathing members of the family, or the heavily reinforced walls of one toddler's imagined city.
For today, we are a pair of trespassers on the sacred reserve of the "proper reader". Soon, this child will board a big yellow bus with her brother and sister...will vanish into Summer days and nights--leaving me to my profane love of books in lonely solitude. All she'll leave for me will be her fingerprints--bright and sticky over every page.