My mother repairs old books, repairing broken seams and mottled pages. She takes damaged books and makes them whole again. She works carefully, using precise measurements and tactics. She gives presentations at conferences titled “How to Avoid Disaster at your Institution.” Her most widely read paper is called “Moth and Larvae Infestation in Books.” She wrote the paper as a result of an infestation in an English professor’s office, when larvae began eating at the pages and laying eggs in the spines of books. When I ask her how a professor of literature, someone who presumably loves words as much as I do, could let their collection reach that condition, my mother spits the word: neglect.
This professor perpetuated the worst case of book damage my mother has faced in her career as a preservation librarian. Most often, books fall into disrepair due to use. I have often wondered; how many people must read a book before the pages begin to fall out and the spine separates from the text? To me, to love a book is to read it obsessively, to carry it in my bag in case I am overcome with the urge to revisit a certain section, to share it with a friend who might need certain words at a certain hour. To people like my mother, using a book as a coaster is sacrilegious. To people like myself, my cup of coffee, my book, the cat trying to deflect my attention by sitting on my hands while I try to read: it is all the same. There are no set boundaries where the book ends and the world around me begins. The place where the sky meets the earth is unmappable. And so, the stories I read become the stories I live.
My mother tells me: even after the larvae infested the books, the professor kept on reading. She read until the books began to disintegrate when she went to pick them up. The professor waited until all one thousand books in her collection were contaminated before she notified my mother, who arrived in her office to find appalling conditions for book maintenance. The room was stuffy and warm, the window was wide open, the books piled haphazardly, resting on shelves among unclean dishes and open containers with liquids. Clumps of moths covered the light fixtures and windows. Moths fell out of books when she turned them upside down. There were larvae crawling everywhere, on the books, on the walls, inside desk drawers, on the office door. In her paper, my mother describes the infestation as “dripping” from every surface in the room.
With great care, my mother removed the professor’s collection from the shelves, placed each book in an individual plastic bag and carted them off to her laboratory, where they were placed in a freezer for three weeks in order to kill the larvae. She then cleaned each book with delicate sponges and brushes. She carved out the damaged parts of the book, doing everything she could to keep their stories intact. When my mother returned the books to the shelves of the woman who nearly destroyed them, they showed visible signs of repair, but they were whole once again.
The purpose of my mother’s laboratory is simple: to preserve, to protect, to maintain. Preservation is about keeping something in its original state. It is about protection from harm. In situations like the larvae-infestation, it is about restoration and repair. So, my mother’s job is twofold, to repair the books people failed to protect and to spread a message on how to properly care for books. Daily, she instructs students and colleagues on proper book care. She measures, cuts and glues. She removes the cover of books and replaces the spine, binding by both hand and machine. Her laboratory is in the basement of a six-floor university library, without any windows. Any light is fluorescent. Any warmth is minimal.
If my mother’s job has taught me anything it is this: always choose to be careful. And yet, sometimes it is not that simple. If neglect implies a choice, we cannot always deflect disasters. If I am neglectful, it is only out of fear of what I cannot control. How long does a moth have to chew at a book until the story becomes unreadable? How many times can a person be hurt before they recognize they are vulnerable?
I actively try to avoid disasters. I don’t let people in until I know I can trust them. I don’t let people go until I am completely sure there is nothing left to hold on to. When disaster strikes despite my efforts to avoid it, I tell myself, I want to remember this, even though the thought alone does not preserve the moment. Sick or sad, fragmented or defeated, I want to believe the sensation will stay with me always. In the back of my mind, a reminder: once there was a girl who believed to be broken meant to stay broken.
When I moved from my hometown of Syracuse, New York to attend grad school in North Carolina, I initially lived on an island. I moved there to transform a recurring daydream into a concrete plan. I would live by the ocean. I would write. I would grow up, fill in an outline I had traced long ago. I had not been alone in several years, but when I crossed the bridge to my new home, I left behind someone who loved me, who asked me kindly are you sure? when I announced I would be moving without him. I wasn’t sure of anything but the need to escape, to tend to the parts of myself I had forgotten to cultivate after years by his side.
Within a few weeks, my mother visited me. She must have believed I was lonely, but she told me she was only trying to ease my transition from my lifelong home of darkness and snow to an island of pastel houses and fat rabbits with no known predators. Syracuse has more cloudy days than days with sunshine. At first, to see the sun stretch across the sky each morning and reflect on the water, was to feel as though myth was manifesting before my eyes. I wanted to stare, to capture the moment, to remember how it felt, no matter the risk.
I had long ago learned to fend of loneliness by reading other people’s stories, but still my mother insisted on visiting. She arrived with chunky flip-flops and swimsuits she modeled like a Hollywood starlet, one hand on her hip. She arrived just in time for the sun to disappear.
On the island, the Coast Guard raises flags to signify foul weather is brewing. A red flag with a black square in the center signifies a storm. For a hurricane, they raise two flags, ominously stacked on top of each other, thrashing in the wind.
I tried to distract my mom from the incoming storm. Let’s paint our nails. Let’s eat tacos. Let’s open up about what has been difficult for us lately. But nothing worked. We watched on the front porch as the clouds rolled in, as the steady rush of the intracoastal waterway became calm, as the threat of the hurricane moved from elsewhere to everywhere. Let’s drive inland. Let’s run away from all of this. Let’s leave while everything is still intact.
The storm would come and go and my new home would remain recognizable. I knew that. Nothing would change but an exposed drainage pipe on the beach, flattened sea grass, a sudden layer of crushed shells in the gap where the water meets the dry sand.
Still, the voice in my head: Don’t get hurt. Don’t get hurt. Don’t get hurt.
My mother, beside me, her rain jacket pulled tight around her face, shaking her head.
We will stay.
To preserve can also mean to freeze, as I did for much of my childhood. The snowstorms I grew up with are not like hurricanes. They are a quieter destruction. While hurricanes tear through everything in their path, wind building, water rising, snowstorms begin with only a few snowflakes. The snow builds and builds until layers of those small flakes suffocate the landscape, forming walls of ice that blockade people into their homes. In blizzards, I have felt the slap of icy wind on my cheeks, felt ice crystals collect on my eyelashes. Above all, I have been immobilized, buried beneath the weight of winter. In the end, there is only a steady building darkness, born from white light, which leaves me hopelessly contained, fixated on the idea I am losing time.
I often wonder: if I was not born in a blizzard and raised in a series of endless winters, would I be a warmer person? Someone people would describe as “affectionate” or “tender”? Someone who does not have to force a sunny disposition? Someone who could learn to love without hesitation, without fear of containment? Would I feel the urge for self-preservation so strongly?
In Syracuse it is often so cold, I would worry the moisture of my eyes would freeze and I would be stuck, eyes open, with no choice but to look at the gray sky and the crumbling gray city, day after day, year after year. This was a childish fear, especially when the real threat to my eyes was not seeing too much, but nothing at all. This was the threat I made worse again and again.
When I was young, I used to read in the dark, straining to pick up the words as the light from passing cars reflected off my window. My mother would snatch my book away and I would pull out another, desperate to read into the night. I got glasses when I was nine years old, the first in my third-grade class. I was young enough that it is easy to forgive myself for ruining my eyes, easy to think my pursuit of stories was worth it. To sleep meant I would soon wake up, to read meant I could stay in a dream just if it took to reach the last page.
Years later, I stared at the sun for too long and burnt the surface of my eye. The pain was excruciating. The potential loss of my sight I could barely fathom. I waited in the emergency room for so long, by the time I saw the doctor, the pain had gone away. The doctor found no evidence my eye had once been burned. He took me at my word that I had sought out his care for a reason.
Eyes are resilient, the doctor told me.
He put eye drops in my eyes anyway, but he did not tell me what they did. On his way out of the room, I took the bottle from the cabinet. I carried the drops around in my purse for comfort, in case the pain returned. As long as I had a potential cure nearby, I felt safe. At my follow up appointment, I handed the bottle back to the nurse, whose face went white.
You shouldn’t have been given these. If you use them more than once, you could go blind.
It was one of the last days of summer and I saw the sun so rarely.
I want to believe only certain people would choose to live on an island like mine, people who operate best in isolation, people who need to see the ocean’s cycles of calmness and disruption to justify those patterns within themselves. In truth, my island is a vacation destination. From May to September, people seeking the sun flood over the bridge that connects the narrow sandbar of an island to the mainland. The people who live there year-round are often retired or students, people whose lives are just beginning or winding down. Their stories are dependent on buildings standing, on bridges that raise and lower on schedule, on safe passage through the storm. I will come to learn that winter is the time I like best, but I should have already known that.
As the storm approached on the island, the sky became overbearing. I researched surge flooding, when the water levels rise and envelop the land. From the porch of my third story condominium, I imagined looking straight down into the sea. The biggest threat, my neighbors told my mother and me, is not the water but the wind. The blowing wind can pick up trees, patio furniture, planters, and surfboards. Objects can fly through the air, smash into buildings and break windows. To protect their homes people, install storm windows. They pile their furniture on counter tops. They make preemptive phone calls to the insurance company. They prepare to watch the boundaries between sky and ocean blur. They speak in giddy voices about the hurricanes of years past as if the hurricanes are a group of women with a grudge against them. Fran ruined my leather sofa. Bertha ripped off my siding. Irene eroded the shoreline so that high tides reach my retaining wall.
I tell stories to explain why things are the way they are, to reveal universal truth, to stamp out fear. When I cannot bring myself to write, I tell my mother, I am sick of words. I only want to experience colors, shapes, geometry.
You failed geometry in high school, she reminds me, you left the final exam blank.
When I talk to her about my broken heart, I say, it was all my fault, even though I am not entirely to blame.
Oh honey, she says, have some self-respect.
When I tell her I fear for the future, the uncertainty that comes with moving somewhere new, making choices I know will lead to more choices, on and on until my head is spinning and I am left wondering how I am possibly supposed to determine what is right for me, she nods thoughtfully. She says, you know, that feeling never really goes away.
My mother has lived her whole life in Syracuse, a city of composed blocks upon blocks of foreclosed houses and unshoveled sidewalks. She moved from her parent’s home to a home with her husband. Her blueprint does not match what I am building. But she knows storms, knows disasters. She knows how to protect and to repair, how to separate a story from the binding that contains it, how to perform surgery on a book in its most delicate state. She has seen the damage of neglect firsthand.
Sometimes my mother tells me she loves me like this: Take care of yourself.
Self-preservation is a direct response to fear and pain. Our brains are wired to withdraw from potentially dangerous situations, to protect ourselves while we heal, to identify and avoid the same fear and pain that ruined us the first time. We build mechanisms of defense. I read until my life pales in comparison to the characters, until I realize I have no stories of my own. My books pull me away from my reality, so I can no longer see further than the moment I am currently living. I hide away in the solitude of my island, until the forecast turns sour and I feel the need to escape that too. I say things like: it was all a misunderstanding and maybe we’ll meet again someday.
When that doesn’t always work, I try to remember how I felt, to recall the moment with the clarity granted in hindsight, to write about my experiences as a way of preserving my emotions, if it writing them down was akin to sticking them into a plastic bag and placing them in a freezer, in order to defrost them when I need them the most. My words become the point of intersection between past and the present, strength and weakness, between a disaster and a mother’s love. Everything around me feels impermanent. Writing is how I choose to hold on.
There were three bedrooms available in my apartment, but my mother said, “We will share” when I asked her where she wanted to sleep the night of the approaching hurricane. Late at night, drowsy and still, we faced inward on the bed, mirroring each other’s posture. She did not pretend to have all the answers, but she listened to each question I asked. I whispered even though there was no one else around to hear me.
Do you remember when our car broke down on the way up a hill in the middle of a snowstorm? You did not have a cell phone to call for help. I sat in the car as the temperature dropped, as it got dark outside. I read my book in the moonlight and you stood out in the street, attempting to flag down passing cars. Were you afraid?
Do you remember when I would spend the day with you at the library? When it was time to leave, we would walk the entire length of the building, shutting off every light, until it was just the two of us in that grand empty hall in total darkness, moving through the stacks, enclosed in the comfort of silence. We would both stay and breathe in the books, even though I was afraid of what might be hiding behind each shelf. How did you make me feel safe?
Do you remember when I was a teenager and I did not come home at night? You would wait up, watching at the window for me to pull in the driveway, even though I told you I would not be coming back. When I left home for good, how long did you continue to hear my car outside your window? How long until my absence became normal?
Later, he would tell me, we shouldn’t regret anything, and I would spend that hurricane season reworking my understanding of the future from a series of blurry projections of the two of us, to a dense black hole, to something else entirely. Something that resembled the clearing of the sky after a snowstorm. Later, I would conclude this realization could only have been possible with my mother’s visit, out of which came a new definition of broken: a brokenness without an easy fix, a brokenness that required continual repair.
My mother takes broken books and makes them whole again, but people are not books, and the stories of our lives cannot be patched up with cardboard and glue.
Sometimes my mother tells me she loves me like this: I hope you are wearing sunscreen. I bought the kind of yogurt where you can add chocolate chips. You were such a happy child.
Sometimes I tell myself: you only feel fragile because you are half-finished.
The next day, my mother wanted to touch the hurricane flag before they raised it. We walked out to the flagpole, breathing in the rain. Rather than bypass the massive puddles forming in the parking lot around the flag, we walked through them, as if to tell the storm, we are impermeable, even as the water filled our shoes. The winds whirled around us. Still just a storm, not yet a hurricane, the second flag lay ready to be hoisted. My mother grinned. Her rain jacket sopping wet, she danced her way to the flagpole.
Afterward, we walked out to the end of the pier. There was another woman there, leaning on the railing and watching the water. My mother asked her to take our picture out in the storm.
I want to remember this, she said.
Madeline Hanley lives and writes in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at UNCW. You can reach her on twitter @baddiemaddie19.