By Leslie Lindsay
A glowing, powerful memoir about one girl’s courage to overcome her mother’s dysfunction under the tutelage of her bee keeper grandfather.
I was absolutely entranced by THE HONEY BUS (HarperCollins/Park Row April 2), which is a memoir at heart, but so much more. Meredith May is 5 when her parents divorce and she, her mother, and younger brother leave Rhode Island for California where May’s grandparents live.
The setting–Big Sur, Carmel, and the Palo Colorado Canyon–oh! I could taste the sea salt, smell the wild sage and eucalyptus. These sensory details were like a warm, languid summer’s day. But things weren’t all that great for Meredith and her younger brother, Matthew. Living with their maternal grandparents in a small home was tense. Meredith had to share a bed with her highly dysfunctional and despondent mother. Still, she had something–and someone–her rugged and caring grandfather, Frank, a beekeeper.
Through a very touching narrative, Meredith leads readers through the ‘honey bus,’ and we experience, through her young eyes, the miraculous abilities of bees. Part ‘bee-keeping 101,’ THE HONEY BUS is about the wisdom and magic of nature, how sometimes other things can save us when we’re drowning, and the tender relationship of a girl and her grandfather. I found this story so warm and touching. I loved the grandfather–and saw glimpses of my own–a stirring and ultimately uplifting story. Plus, I learned so much about bees!
Part family memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, THE HONEY BUS is a such a captivating read about finding home in the most unusual places, and how a tiny, often misunderstood insect could save a life—could save us all.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Meredith May to the author interview series.
Meredith, I loved this story. I found myself worried and thinking about you and your grandfather even when I set the book down. I think that’s a good thing. What propelled you to write this story—why now?
Everyone has a soundtrack to their life … a steady beat of memories and emotions playing on loop inside their head. For me, I had to get it out or it would turn into a very demented earworm. I write to make sense of myself, and actually began this book almost a decade ago when I was finally putting some connections together between my childhood and a disastrous pattern of dating people who wouldn’t make room for me. The first draft was so very different from the final because at first I didn’t know what I was writing about, I just needed to write and a lot of the early drafts turned out like “monster-mom memoirs” which is not fair, or frankly that interesting. I re-wrote this book three times. It was not until Grandpa passed away that I began to see my life as blessed rather than cursed because of what he had given me, and when I became grateful that I had been saved in the most unusual way, I finally realized what my book was about.
I love, love how you braid in bits of beekeeping with the social lives of, well, people. There’s so much we can learn from nature. Can you give us a few ‘bee facts’ that you found particularly moving?
Oh so many … each time I open my hive those little buggers teach me something new. My office window faces my backyard where I can see my hive. Every day about the same time, 1pm-ish, a cloud of bees comes out and makes little practice circles in the yard. It’s flying school time – when the older foragers teach the young-ins how to fly. They mentor each other – and practice memorizing the landmarks of the yard, the fountain and the trees and the deck chairs, until they feel confident enough to go out far and forage. The analogy for me is that we all need to work up to things, and ask for help when we need it. Once they gain confidence, they fly in a radius of up to five miles gathering nectar and pollen. And they always come back to their hive, even bees that live in apiaries with dozens of hives know how to find theirs. They navigate by the angle of the sun, and by memorizing landmarks, and by scent. Each queen in each hive has her own pheromone. All of that blows my mind.
THE HONEY BUS is mostly about your relationship with your warm, supportive grandfather. But it’s also about your mother. She spent most of her time hidden in her bedroom, and then when she was around, she lashed out. We get a sense that she was depressed and she also admits to having had a challenging childhood, but was there something else going on? Like, maybe she had a mental illness?
Bingo. I very much believe that my mother and grandmother were in a folie à deux – they reinforced a shared delusion that the world was crazy and they were sane. My mother never sought help for her depression, agoraphobia, violent impulsivity, or narcissism because she didn’t see those things in herself. Granny was complicit in normalizing those traits in her daughter – and in fact amplifying them – by reinforcing the idea that while Mom was difficult sometimes, her moods should be tolerated because she was an unwitting victim of supreme bad luck. I understand now, as an adult, that Granny felt guilty for not protecting Mom when she was a girl and being physically abused by her own father. But their relationship was so insular, and so un-challengeable, that there was no room for anyone else’s emotions in the house. When I first saw the movie Grey Gardens – the original documentary version – about a mother and daughter locked in a shared insanity – my skin went cold. I’m not sure where my mother and grandmother would fall in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but their behavior was not healthy for themselves or the people who lived with them.
“A fascinating and hopeful book of family, bees, and how ‘even when [children] are overwhelmed with despair, nature has special ways to keep them safe.’ ”
Yet, you managed to find your way. Much of that is because you had such a gentle relationship with your grandfather, because of the bees. You found a purpose, something bigger than your pain. Can you talk a little more about that? Does it all come down to resilience, or is it something else?
I think everyone needs, at bare minimum, one person who loves them unconditionally. Kids who grew up like I did walk a very thin line between survival and giving up. I’m fascinated by what makes some children keep trying, and what makes others collapse into themselves. I was incredibly fortunate that the one person who made sure I didn’t fall was an eccentric mountain man with deep ties to the natural world, who didn’t give a fig about money or power or rank. He cared very deeply about his bees, and understood that without them, we don’t eat. He showed me by example that humans should be stewards, not dominators, of the land, and he didn’t keep bees to make money or to have honey. He kept them because they are amazing creatures that made him happy and reminded him of the wisdom of nature. Grandpa embodied the principles of spiritual meditation before it was a thing – of sending loving kindness into the world on the daily. When I am in Big Sur and meet someone new, I always say I’m his granddaughter for a point of reference, and people break into smiles and instantly treat me like family. He’s like my Big Sur VIP pass. For me, it comes down to hitting the Grandpa jackpot.
Memoir can be a tricky genre. It’s vulnerable, it’s painful. Was there ever a time you felt you just couldn’t tell this story? Did you have to find yourself at a ‘certain place in life’ before you could?
I laugh because it took me three tries to write this book because yes, memoir is freakin’ hard! The first pass, I tried writing in child voice and it came out really awful because, well, I’m not Mary Karr and I’m not a kid anymore. My wise editor Erika Imranyi at Park Row Books directed me to put adult reflection in. Version two came out like a manifesto, with exhibits A, B and C why I wanted you, the reader, to side with me against my parents. But everyone is mad at their parents on some level, so it’s just not that interesting. I wasn’t mature enough to write my memoir when I began it. It took my grandfather’s passing. Before he died in 2015, he asked me if I would take care of his bees. What he was really asking was if I would step into his shoes. I felt legacy for the first time, and it was a powerful feeling of incredible safety, luck, and love. That’s when my book finally made sense to me. I’d always known my family was unusual and the characters were interesting, but I didn’t understand the higher point of my book until I brought in the life lessons from grandpa’s bees.
You’re a beekeeper now. I love that. What can we do to save the bees? And why is this important?
Plant wildflowers. Plant wildflowers. Plant wildflowers. Everywhere – on rooftops, in street medians, in parks, as crop borders. It’s the number one, easiest, most helpful way to bring back habitat diversity for bees. They need a much more varied diet than we are giving them by paving over the meadows and trucking bees to agricultural farms and forcing them to eat a mono-diet. There are these wildflower seed balls that you can toss in your yard that will sprout pollinator-friendly flowers. Kids love them.
Build an insect hotel – a little chateau of pinecones and hollow reeds or drill holes into wood for all sorts of solitary bees, ladybugs, moths, and other pollinators to move in. There are pre-built ones online, or you can make your own.
Switch from using pesticides and herbicides in your garden … yes, RoundUp especially – to natural methods such as neem oil and diatomaceous earth. Chemicals destroy the neurological systems of bees and other pollinators, and remove the flowers they need from the landscape.
Invite a beekeeper to keep a hive on your land in exchange for a little honey, or start keeping bees yourself under the guidance of a mentor beekeeper.
All of this is vital because we are facing an Insect Apocalypse. This year, the journal Biological Conservation conducted a meta-study and found that 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction, due to habitat loss, chemical exposure, and global warming. Without pollinators – and honeybees far and away are the biggest pollinators, directly responsible for every third bite we put in our mouths – we face unthinkable diversity loss and collapse of our food chain. Imagine losing two-thirds of what’s currently in the produce section at your grocery store.
What’s one thing I should have asked, but may have forgotten? It can be about your next book, your pets, what you had for breakfast, your weekend plans…
You didn’t ask about the funniest reaction to my book. A journalist and Mom on Twitter said she was explaining a passage from THE HONEY BUS to her 10-year-old son, the part about how male bees die during intercourse because their “male part” snaps off during mating. The boy, quite pleased with himself, said “You mean their bee-nis falls off?”
Meredith, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you!
I’ve had fun with this – thank you for your excellent questions!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE HONEY BUS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Meredith May is an award-winning journalist, author, and fifth-generation beekeeper.
Her memoir, THE HONEY BUS, reveals the life lessons she learned in her grandfather’s Big Sur bee yard that rescued her from a difficult childhood. Published April 2019 by HarperCollins/Park Row Books, the book is translated into eleven languages.
Her 2017 book: I, WHO DID NOT DIE, tells the true story of an Iranian child soldier who risked his life to save a wounded enemy fighter during the brutal Iran-Iraq War – an astonishing act of mercy that changed the course of both their lives.
During her sixteen-year career at the San Francisco Chronicle, her reporting won the PEN USA Literary Award for Journalism, the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, and first place feature writing awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Associated Press. Her series about an Iraqi boy wounded during the second Gulf War was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Meredith is a former professor of journalism and podcasting at Mills College in Oakland, CA. She lives in San Francisco, where she rows on the Bay and cares for several beehives in a community garden. You can reach her at thehoneybus.com
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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#memoir #beekeeping #mothersanddaughters #grandparents #California #savethebees
[Cover and author image courtesy of Park Row/HarperCollins and used with permission. Author photo credit: Matthew May. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Intstagram]