Books were my first love. Growing up, I cherished solitude because it gave me the freedom to read without interruption. However, when I became a mother, I discovered I had much less solitude. Uncannily, my daughter could sense whenever I transferred my attention from her to a book, and she didn't like that.
When she still took naps, she'd wake up as soon as I picked up something to read. When she was a toddler, playing happily in the next room, she'd quickly appear to demand my attention no matter how stealthily I turned the pages. To make matters worse, we moved to a small town where the county library was not much bigger than the average living room. My reading life went underground.
After my daughter grew up and left home, I thought of my old dream of studying literature. Finally in a position to pursue it, I enrolled at the local university.
When I received my library card in the mail, I made plans to visit the next day. I could picture myself walking out to the parking lot with books stacked to my chin. But late that evening, an old friend called and asked me to watch her 3-year-old the following day because the day care was closed. She'd done me many a favor, so I said, "Of course."
Rather than change my plans, I decided I would take Iliana to the library with me. I knew her presence would shorten the time I could spend there, but it would still be fun. Perhaps it would even be a formative experience for her. She would be impressed by those rows and rows of books and the solemn attentiveness of young faces pursuing knowledge and education. Perhaps she would grow up to be a bibliophile like me, or even a famous scholar who would mention me whenever she was interviewed.
My young friend enjoyed the trip up the stairs on my shoulders to the third floor of the library. It was even quieter than usual. There were signs all over the place: Please be quiet. Students are studying for finals.
We stopped at the water fountain at the top of the stairs. It was time to review the arcane customs of libraries. I divulged them in a solemn whisper: "No running, no frolicking, no water spitting. And above all, be very, very quiet. We only whisper in the library. Like thisss. Can you whisssper like thisss?"
Her eyes were round and delighted. "Yesss," she hissed back.
Feeling like a wise priestess, I took my young apprentice by the hand and led her back into the labyrinth of bookshelves. Books, books, books. All displayed according to Dewey's supremely rational and wise dictates.
I stopped at a likely spot, dropped to one knee, and whispered in Iliana's ear, "You look at the books on this shelf for just a few minutes, and I'll look at the books on this shelf up here."
I straightened up and transferred my attention to the row of books in front of me.
Less than a minute had elapsed when I noticed something was wrong. The kid was gone.
"Iliana?" I whispered loudly. No response. I checked out a few aisles to my east, then backtracked and checked out a few aisles to my west. Afraid that she would get farther and farther away if I searched consistently in the wrong direction, I kept up my zigzag dashing back and forth, calling her name in a soft voice, until I hit one end of the library without seeing her.
Just then I heard her. "Martha! Where are you?" she yelled from the opposite end, far away. Heads swiveled curiously.
"I'm coming," I called faintly.
She didn't hear me. "Where are you? Martha! Martha! Come here!" She didn't sound at all frightened, just stridently annoyed that I wasn't still standing at her side where I was supposed to be.
Iliana wasn't difficult to find. When she saw the expression on my face, she could tell I needed to lighten up, so she burst into loud laughter and scampered around the corner. A young man heaved an exasperated sigh. After a brief but merry chase, I caught her and hoisted her back up to my shoulders.
It all came back to me then. I guess I'd glossed over some of the less-than-perfect aspects of motherhood. Taking my daughter to the library when she was little had never given me time to browse for myself. I had to devote myself to her entertainment, or she would fasten herself to my knee and ask me every two minutes if I was ready to go.
Motherhood had seemed so consuming, I was sure I'd never forget any of it. But in retrospect, mothering seems like a tough exam I had to cram for. A lot of the details simply evaporated after I graduated. My daughter is my diploma, of course - a laurel I rest on with pride. But I have a lot of reading to catch up on.