The Missouri sharecroppers strike. I hadn’t even been born yet and couldn’t have any personal memory of it, but I can feel the frigid cold my family felt, huddling with all the other families that had been kicked off the land and forced to build a makeshift camp on the side of the snowy roads.
This little lot of land wasn’t ours back then. We worked along with other families to care for crops we didn’t own, to make a penny off every dollar’s worth of cotton sold. And when things got bad for the owners, the Depression had been especially mean to the Midwest, the government bailed the owners out, but none of the bailouts never made it to the sharecroppers. White and black sharecroppers took up residence together on the side of Missouri’s biggest highways so anybody passing through could see how terrible things had gotten for the people who really had the weight of the country on their backs. If I ever complained about a worn-out dress or scuffed up shoes, Meredith was always there to remind me that I didn’t know how bad it could be because I never had to suffer through 1939.
Meredith and another boy in the camp had been playing fetch with a dog that had followed us, sorry, them (I don’t know why I keep doing that) from the old farm. They had been bored and doing what they could to entertain themselves while my mother, pregnant with me, had been keeping sheltered from the cold inside a lean-to tent packed with everything they owned.
Daddy and a young Gordon had been talking with two white men in suits and overcoats, trying to figure out what to do now that all the sharecroppers had been kicked out.
Meredith slipped in the snow while playing with the dog and landed face-first on the hard, frozen ground. And she panicked. I remembered the look on her face, even though I had been inside my mother’s belly. Maybe it’s the way she told it. I felt like I was there. But I see it even now, Meredith’s eyes wide and watering while her hands fluttered about like she was patting out a fire.
Daddy rushed over, probably terrified the poor girl had broken her arm or worse. But then Meredith started tearing at her clothes and thrust her hand inside her worn and dirty coat. “It’s okay, they’re okay, please don’t be mad,” she kept saying over and over again. He looked in the pocket of her coat and found a hunk of comb with the queen bee and a handful of drones clinging to it.
She’d wanted to keep the bees warm, so snuck them out of the makeshift box Daddy had hastily put together when they learned they’d lost the house and had to leave. Daddy quietly took the comb, careful not to hurt the bees, and set them back in the box, while everyone looked on, silent. He sat next to it for a while, his hands on the box lid like he was kneeling to pray.
I half-remember him finally clearing his throat to speak. Without looking up from the little box, he told us all how important the bees were, not just because the family might be able to survive the coming years by selling honey if the rest of the hive found the queen come Spring, but because he’d been entrusted with the bees by his mother, who’d been entrusted with the bees by her father. He’d never told us how far back the bees and our family had been intertwined, or how the two families had protected each other, provided for each other, for almost a century. He swore that promise wouldn’t end with him. He would keep both families safe, no matter what.
Then he stood up and went back to the men while Gordon gave Meredith a good what for. It had been a long, worrisome winter at that tail end of the Great Depression, but somehow, they had managed to keep the colony alive. Because of those bees, our family was able to thrive while so many others didn’t.
I never told anyone that I remembered that story. They wouldn’t believe me. And now, it would only confirm my mental decline. Remembering things that were impossible for me to remember tends to do that.
Daddy left the bees to me. He taught me everything I needed to know to protect them, and I made the same promise he did without really knowing I did. We have to know where we come from to understand where we’re going. We need to know the stock that made us who we are, even if we take our own path. The bees were a part of our family as far back as I can remember, and long before.
I told Beryl everything I could while I could. But I’m alone now, and my mind is fading whether I want to admit it or not. These stories might be the only way to ensure they know how important the bees are.
These stories will be here long after I’m gone. Drifting through this house like a summer breeze, waiting to catch the ear of someone willing to hear. In my heart, I know it’ll be Beryl.
Because they aren’t the only one who believes in magic.