The honeybee is nature’s linchpin, a keystone species, without which there is a ripple effect of ecological destabilization. More plainly, without the honeybee, our ecosystem could collapse.
Honeybees are, after all, workers. Flitting incessantly from pollen source to pollen source in pursuit of honeycomb perfection. Feeding the queen while also feeding the rest of us, not only with the sweet delight of their honey but in all that cross-pollination that keeps the rest of our food system alive. They are simultaneously dogged and sensitive, single-mindedly pursuing clovers and wildflowers and blossoms while ever-so-vulnerable to changes in the world around them. When the snow melts and they no longer need to warm the queen, they should return to our gardens en masse. But whatever we humans are putting out into the world makes it less and less likely that we’ll hear that C-sharp wingsong in our own gardens.
Fierce. Productive. Vulnerable. Celebrated for their hard work and its sweet payoff, the honeybee holds us together. Wings flapping, fuzzy legs coated in yellow life, the stinger of last resort. One of the most productive species on earth, and also one of the most imperiled.
In Greek, Melissa means honeybee.
When I was younger, I hated this name. My mother confessed that I was named for 1970s crooner Melissa Manchester, and other parents must have been similarly inspired because there were always multiples of us around. Swarms of Melissas. It seemed to me that there was nothing unique, nothing meaningful about this name. When you tacked on my middle name (another celebrity nod, this time to Janet Leigh), it felt southern--Melissa Leigh--and I am definitely not southern. Paired with my last name that was never really mine, I had a name too nondescript to be memorable: Michelle? Melanie? Melissa Gilbert? Nicknames were not much better. Missy: Too sweet, too cutesy. Mel: Too tomboy, too in-your-face. Meliss: Why not just say the last syllable? And Mitzi: Embarrassing to admit that this was the one I liked best of all, because at least its celebrity inspiration was a star of musical theatre.
My name, it felt like nothing to me.
But now, at forty, I think of that honeybee as my spirit animal. My name is my reminder of my role in this little ecosystem that I call my community.
Hard work is a trait we value in my family. We are nothing if not workers.
Towards the end of his life, when he was hospital-bound and semi-conscious, my grandfather would have episodes of what my mother called “sundowning,” fugue states of a lifetime of memories. Connected to IVs and heart monitors and blood oximeters, Grandpa’s hands would start flitting and flapping. He was working. Sometimes, it was the motions of the machine shop, tools and dies being made by muscle memory. Other times, it was the adding machine, disembodied hands frantically trying to right the accounts of yet another failing business endeavor. Grandpa, he was a worker.
I had this in common with him—in fact, he instilled it in me. I grew up learning to bust my tail: pulling all-nighters to finish what must be done; working double shifts that took me from sunrise at the golf course clubhouse to last call at the lakeside bar; holding two, three, four jobs a semester in college, and after; completing graduate degrees while working full-time and then some. I have brought this work ethic, as we call it, to my life as a parent and partner. Nose to the grindstone. Completing tasks with gusto. Nodding knowingly while I belt out along with Aaron Burr, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?,” certain that Alexander and me and my grandpa all must share that same drive to work, “to be of use” as Marge Piercy praises:
So yes, I am a honeybee like my name portends. I am a worker bee born of the city of big shoulders. It is in my DNA. Like those Aran Isle fisherfolk who decorate themselves in the honeycomb stitch, I know that there are sweet rewards for a life lived in service of hard, honest work.
There are days, though, when this work is all too much. I imagine I am not the only mother to fantasize about packing up a suitcase and leaving town, no note as to my whereabouts and only the missing bathing suits and novels as a clue to where I might have headed for solace. My home office makes light of this very real fantasy with a beautifully scripted piece of wooden art that declares, “Fuck it, I’m going to Paris.” In fact, I’ve done that before—fucked it all and packed up for Paris. Where, while drinking wine and binging on croissants, I also worked like a dog: To make friends. To navigate life in another language. To find a job that didn’t involve spoiled Parisian toddlers throwing steel firetrucks at my head when I denied them yet another Nutella sandwich. Funny, though, how this kind of work inspired by a fuck-it-all quest for adventure is refreshing, not exhausting. Oh, there are tears for sure along the way. Like just last month, when I was trying to find an ATM in the old city of Ahmedabad, not speaking Hindi or Gujarati, the only white woman anywhere in the vicinity as every stare reminded me, breathing in diesel exhaust and wandering in circles around streets tied together like a pretzel, not knowing how I was going to pay poor underpaid Mohan back for my week’s worth of thali dinners. But I did it, just like I made a life in Paris that semester when I was eighteen and just like I learned to live in Mexico in another language and another way of life while raising one baby and birthing another, while teaching full-time and writing a dissertation and looking for tenure-track positions. I did it. It was hard work that stretched the limits of my sanity and mental capacity, but I did it. And each of these times, even when inspired by a “fuck it all” escape, the lesson seemed too clear. Just keep swimming, as Dory sings. Or in my case, just keep flapping, just keep flying, just keep making honey. Persist. A lesson both political and personal.
So for my fortieth birthday, my gift to myself was a lifelong reminder etched on this imperfect, overworked body to keep flying, keep flapping, keep making honey. When the world is too much for me, just keep working. Don’t run away. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. And for life’s sake, try not to sting. Instead, take those antidepressants and just keep working. That is the lesson of the honeybee. Or so I thought.
But honeybees also make up a collective that is impotent without community. They will sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the hive. They step up to repair and renew when there are holes in the honeycomb. They snuggle through coldest winter to warm the queen. And there are honeybees that don’t really work at all. The queen, who procreates and recreates and dines on royal jelly. The drones, who donate their DNA to the cause and then die, never once heading out to gather pollen. And then there is their music making, their wingsong. Yes, honeybees are hard-working pollinators, but is that all it takes to be a keystone? To be a linchpin?
On New Year's Eve, my father-in-law died.
We always joked that his spirit animal was a beaver, the very same beaver he regaled his grandchildren with stories of trying to unsuccessfully hunt. If he wasn’t clanging pots in the kitchen or debating his wife on the porch, he was probably in his office, working away to keep his household and progeny and greater community moving forward. Yes, he worked. But that’s not what we’re remembering about him right now.
The stories we’re sharing right now are about his generosity, his big heart, his big personality. The way he made each individual he encountered feel special and talented and worthwhile. We’re remembering his piano playing and the way he tried to give four-year-old Anna her first lesson in music theory or two-year-old Rory a lesson in patience. We’re remembering his younger self, full of good-natured mischief and stubborn indestructability. We’re remembering his station wagons and his barn full of model cars, glimmers of the alternate universe in which Papa Fresh was an automobile designer. We’re getting phone calls and messages from friends the world over who have stories to share about Papa Fresh and the way he stepped up to contribute to every community, the way he made himself a soul brother to so many, this only child craving life beyond his staid Victorian parents.
He has left a big hole in our universe. For us and for so many, he has been our linchpin. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, there was yet one more guest invited into the folds of our family. Maybe their children chose a warm-weather vacation over winter in the Keweenaw—or maybe for a change, they came home. Maybe it was a new friend, relationship forged over a shared love of history or a Big Ten rivalry. And there were always those adopted years ago, distant cousins and childhood friends. Together, we make up an ecosystem. We will go on without him, of course. He would want nothing less. Our ecosystem will endure, but we sure will miss the sweet honey that Papa Fresh’s presence gifted us.
When I look at my tattoo now, a week after Paul’s death and three months after turning forty, I see something different. The honeybee is a keystone species, not because it bears a burden but because it is able to do effortlessly what would be so hard for others. In architecture, the keystone is the brick at the top of an arch that somehow provides stability to the entire structure without being worn down by the pressures above it. There is a grace to its presence, a grace that makes the rest of what is around it possible.
Adulthood, and parenthood in particular, has been hard for me. Before children, Ross joked that I would make a great fighter pilot—doggedly and calmly facing not just crises but life. But since children, I feel instead like a worn out rubber band that threatens to snap at even the gentlest of tugs. In dark moments, I confess to him that I don’t think I was meant to be a parent. I am not good at this. It is hard for me. It is work, and not in the way that my grandpa embodied, as some kind of ethic to be valued. It is work in the sense that it takes every ounce of my being to hold it together, to not yell and lose patience and then fantasize about running away to someplace warm and never coming back. It is work constantly worrying about what psychic damage I’m doing to my children during each morning’s chaos and each dinner’s tantrums (mine, not theirs). When I thought about turning forty, this symbolic shift firmly into adulthood and midlife, where things just feel like a grind and where I’ve become all too aware of demons that I hadn't known haunted me, I wanted to remind myself that I made it this far and I could continue making it. Flap, work, persist, etc. The honeybee. A tattoo seemed a permanent and ever-present reminder of the work of survival, of just how much I could bear.
But in grief there is also light. And in his passing, Papa Fresh has reminded me that life is not a burden to bear; it is a gift to be shared. Sometimes we lose our tempers, sometimes we are in pain, sometimes there is more on our shoulders than there should be, sometimes we worry so much we can’t sleep. But by doing what we can do, we take pressure off of others so that they, too, can do what they can. The honeycomb is, after all, a network of keystones, a repository for the sweetness of life that we create together—honey, yes, but also the music of wingsong and the pollination that gives life far beyond a single hive. And yes, there are sometimes holes in that apian universe, but another worker bee will always sweep in to repair it for the good of the hive. Because that’s what she does, not as a burden to bear but as an effortless expression of her being, which enables the rest of us to effortlessly be, too. That’s what Paul was so good at—the effortlessness of interconnection, the effortlessness of upholding a community.
Inside my right forearm, there is a honeybee. While I write this, I am reminded that this is one of the things I do effortlessly—writing and reflecting and seeking out meaning. That’s why she’s here in this spot, my worker bee, and may she help remind me that I, too, am a keystone. Life is never long enough, but there will always be honey as long as we remember: we are all keystone species.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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