I began following Grandpa everywhere, climbing into his pickup in the mornings and going to work with him. Thus began my education in the bee yards of Big Sur, where I learned that a beehive revolved around one principle—the family. Grandpa taught me the hidden language of bees, how to interpret their movements and sounds, and to recognize the different scents they release to communicate with hive mates. His stories about the colony's Shakespearean plots to overthrow the queen and its hierarchy of job positions swept me away to a secret realm when my own became too difficult.
Over time, the more I discovered about the inner world of honeybees, the more sense I was able to make of the outer world of people. As my mother sank further into despair, my relationship with nature deepened. I learned how bees care for one another and work hard, how they make democratic decisions about where to forage and when to swarm, and how they plan for the future. Even their stings taught me how to be brave.
I gravitated toward bees because I sensed that the hive held ancient wisdom to teach me the things that my parents could not. It is from the honeybee, a species that has been surviving for the last 100 million years, that I learned how to persevere.
I didn't see who threw it.
The pepper grinder flew end over end across the dinner table in a dreadful arc, landing on the kitchen floor in an explosion of skittering black BBs.
Either my mother was trying to kill my father, or it was the other way around. With better aim it could have been possible, because it was one of those heavy mills made of dark wood, longer than my forearm.
If I had to guess, it was Mom. She couldn't stand the silence in her marriage anymore, so she got Dad's attention by hurling whatever was within reach. She ripped curtains from rods, chucked Matthew's baby blocks into walls and smashed dishes on the floor to make sure we knew she meant business. It was her way of refusing to become invisible. It worked. I learned to keep my back to the wall and my eyes on her at all times.
Tonight, her pent-up fury radiated off her body in waves, turning her alabaster skin a bright pink. A familiar dread pooled in my belly as I held my breath and studied the wallpaper pattern of ivy leaves winding around copper pots and rolling pins, terrified that the slightest sound from me would redirect the invisible white-hot beam between my parents and leave a puff of smoke where once a five-year-old girl used to be. I recognized this stillness before the storm, the momentary pause of utensils held aloft before the verbal car crash to come. Nobody moved, not even my two-year-old brother, frozen mid-Cheerio in his high chair. Dad calmly set down his fork and asked Mom if she planned to pick that mess up.
Mom dropped her paper napkin on top of her untouched dinner; we were eating American chop suey again—an economical mishmash of elbow macaroni, ground beef and whatever canned vegetables we had, mixed with tomato sauce. She lit a cigarette, long and slow, and then blew smoke in Dad's direction. I expected him to take his normal course of action, to unfold his long body from the chair, disappear into the living room and crank the Beatles so loud that he couldn't hear her. But tonight he just stayed seated, arms crossed, his coal-colored eyes boring at Mom through the smoke. She flicked her ash into her plate without breaking his stare. He watched her, disgust etched into his face.
"You promised to quit."
"Changed my mind," she said, inhaling so deeply I could hear the tobacco crackle.
Dad slapped the table and the silverware clattered. My brother startled, then his lower lip curled down and his breath hitched as he wound up for a full-body cry. Mom exhaled in Dad's direction again and narrowed her eyes. My nerves hopped like a bead of water in a frying pan as I nervously tapped my fingers on my thigh under the table, counting the seconds as I waited for one of them to pounce. When I counted to seven, I noticed the beginnings of a sardonic smile at the corners of Mom's mouth. She stubbed her cigarette out on her plate, rose and sidestepped the peppercorns, then stomped into the kitchen. I heard her banging pots, and then a lid clattered to the ground, ringing a few times before it settled on the floor. She was up to something, and that was never good.
Mom returned to the table with a steaming pot, still warm from the stove. She lifted it over her head and I screamed, worried she would burn Dad dead. He screeched his chair back, stood up and dared her to throw it. My stomach lurched, as if the table and chairs had suddenly lifted off the floor and spun me too fast like one of those carnival teacup rides.