My father is a beekeeper.
I don't remember when exactly he started keeping bees, it was sometime around the tail end of my high school years, and I don't remember a lot of details from then, but over the years it has grown from a hobby to a full time operation, occupying many of the hours of his retirement years. Essentially, he's not retired at all, just doing a different kind of work, one that he truly loves. He has devoted countless hours to learning about the bees, and can discuss everything about them for hours. Conversations with him on this subject still startle me. To hear/see someone so stoic come alive with such a passion is an amazing thing to witness. It is almost like I am seeing him for the first time.
My father's hands are rough. They are the hands of the logger/carpenter/farmer/beekeeper worker he has been throughout his life. I can remember how those rough hands felt on mine on my wedding day. The rough skin against my soft skin, my weak skin of retail and typing. I no longer worked on the farm. I had moved down another path, but his hands held no judgment. I was alive, I was in love, and he was happy for me. He could never say it in words. His hands told me.
From the time I was in 4th grade to 11th grade, my father ran his own contracting (construction) business. He made no money at it; in fact he and my mother were pretty far in debt (something I did not know at the time, our family did not ever discuss finances and besides, everyone was poor where we lived). My mother could never get him to adequately charge for his services, enough to make any profit. My father is a humble man. He did not know how to sell himself or his services. The work was the thing. The work was its own reward. For all that, I think he was relieved when he decided to fold his business and take a job doing maintenance for the school district until he retired. At this time, he found the bees and attained a measure of peace that had never been available to him. I left home at this time, so many bad years between us having strained the relationship almost to the breaking point.
I never stopped loving him. I never stopped admiring him. Soon those years became water under the bridge, those bad times did not matter anymore. I watched him quietly support my mother while her father, then her mother died. I could not admire anyone more than I did him during those long days. He was a rock and my mother leaned on him. His love never wavered for a moment. During one of the funerals, I don't remember which, my mother shook nonstop at the graveside. I stood next to her, my hand never leaving her shoulder. My father's hand never left her other shoulder. I was learning, though I knew I still had far to go.
I think of my father and I think of honesty and integrity. I think of quiet. I think of someone who kicked addictions to nicotine, chew, and alcohol without ever saying much of anything about it. When I saw him yesterday, he said "When I stopped drinking I lost all of my friends." There was no resignation or sadness in his voice. This was a fact, it was done, and my mother was still there, and he did not want for more. Or if he did, he never let on. And that sentence is all I have ever heard him say about it. My father is a private man.
I share my father's birthday, December 9th. He was born in 1937. I was born in 1973. He was the last of 12 children. I was the last of six. I am more of my father than I can perhaps understand. He has done what he could to teach me to walk like a man, and I am still stumbling. I know that he must have stumbled at times, too.
There are two photos I treasure. One is of my grandfather standing on a log and surveying the woods. The other is of my father and I. I am five years old, he is 40 or so. We are standing next to each other, looking at the garden. The photo shows our backs. We both have our hands clasped behind our backs in the exact same way, unconsciously. Mirror images.
I have never told this man that I love him. I hope I do not have to wait until the bees come into my life to find the words.
The Beekeeper's Son by Paul Stolp
My father is a beekeeper.