Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Beekeeper

My father's name is Emil. In my memory I see him as muscled, tanned, and vital, dressed in the J.C. Penney suntan uniform he always wore to work. For many years he labored as a cabinet maker but later, looking for an income less reliant on housing starts, he worked as a janitor at our parish church where my mother was a teacher.

My father had many interests, all of which he pursued to excellence. When he planted a garden, an
uncommon enough sight in 1950s Southern California, he didn't put in a small patch in the backyard. Rather, he plowed up a 30' by 30' plot near the football field of the parish school from which appeared (but never on my plate) such exotic vegetables as kohlrabis and rutabagas. When he decided to take up raising flowers he built a greenhouse to grow orchids and African violets which he then sold to the local gardening center. Much later, when he and my mom retired to a 10 acre ranch in the southeast corner of Idaho, they built their own large home by themselves--plumbing, electricity, everything. I always knew he could do anything with his hands.

I was happy just to exist in his environment. Our garage was filled with his tools, an excess of tools, so many that each kind had its own drawer, rasps and files here, hammers over there, screwdrivers in this one. I still recall the acrid metallic smell of all these tools. I spent Saturday mornings happily drilling, hammering, cutting, and sawing by myself, listening to the Saturday morning radio shows, with the Buster Brown Show ("Twang your magic twanger, froggy!") and Grand Central Station crackling out of the Zenith. Later the contents of the garage would reach to the ceiling and the garage become even more alluring when my father decided to keep bees.

My father approached the logistics of beekeeping as if it were he who had to have combs filled with honey before winter's dormancy. Great racks of hive parts, frame parts, bottoms, floors, tops, and sides of beehives rose in the garage, each individual piece in a large slot with its siblings. Each wooden piece was cut on a table saw to, I now realize, jigs of his own devising, some pieces cut in the most delicate lacy patterns for future joinery. The sweet waxy smell of foundation competed with the metal bite of the tools' smell for attention.

Nor did my father have just a hobby hive or two. He kept one hundred colonies and moved them around to different blossoms, cheaply-sold eucalyptus honey in the winter, sweet heavenly orange blossoms in the fall. Once, when my mom was sick in the hospital my senior year in high school, I accompanied my dad on a hive-moving excursion. After the sleeping and soothed-by-the-smoker bees had been loaded into the old pickup truck he let me drive us back through the night. As we pulled off the freeway I made an error in downshifting the double-clutched transmission and caused a sharp series of jolts. I don't remember if my dad said anything about it to me but, really, what was his lone irritated voice in the night air now filled with raspy invective from thousands of angry bees?

Still later he impressed me into helping with the honey extraction, putting me off the stuff for years.

I loved poring through the beekeepers' catalogs with their art deco multi-sloped-shouldered jars, so beautiful even if lacking the intense amber liquid inside (they still look like this to me today) and their labels in designs resonant of a golden age that probably never existed. My dad read The ABC and XYZ of Beekeeping from A to Z. Decades later when I saw the book on friends' bookshelf, my heart jumped with delight. Only years later, when I not only understood what we all come to know, that we're really not like anyone else, but began to recognize the serious error of my miscalculation of the order of magnitude of that difference as it applied to myself, did I stop killing conversations by offering such insights as, "Do you know that they found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs?"

This complete attention to knowing a thing as thoroughly as possible is my dad's great legacy to me. I'm humbled to say that this legacy continues today in parts of my son's life.

My partner Carrie is visiting him today but I know that if I were there, where he lies, happily, I think, or at least cheerfully, but largely stripped of memory, I'd lean over, smile, and say, "Dad, remember when you kept bees?"

Fathers Day 2004