I wrote what turned out to be a rough draft of this piece of writing on August 22, 2014, on a website that no longer exists. What you see here is an improved version of that story.
Content Warning: This piece of writing includes discussion of bees, bee stings, and guns.
I read “Don’t Shoot the Bee Hive” on Episode 041 of my Words of Jen podcast.
When I was little, my mother would send me outside to “watch the kids”. I am the oldest child, and my mom decided that meant that it was perfectly okay for her to use me as a babysitter. When either of my parents used the phrase “the kids” – they meant my siblings. Not me. To this day, I am unsure if this type of thing was considered normal in the 1970s, or if my parents were neglectful. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
My sister was two years younger than me, and my brother was three years younger. We had a big backyard, with a fence around it because my brother had a tendency to wander. The two of them were about 18 months apart. They weren’t technically “Irish twins”, but they functioned as though they were.
Today, both of my siblings would have been identified as having “special needs”.
My sister was a selective mute. She could understand language and could speak when she chose to. She simply refused to talk to anyone who wasn’t part of our immediate family. When she needed something, and other people were around, she would quietly whisper what she wanted to me – and I would translate that to the adults in the room.
She was born with a perplexing physical condition that alarmed doctors. Her tear ducts didn’t function until she was about two years old, and she was unable to sweat. So, I had to keep a close watch on her to make sure she didn’t overheat. My mom told me to get my sister back into the house if she started looking pink.
My brother, we learned years later, was autistic. He was pre-verbal for years, had a lot of sensory issues, and, as I said, would wander off if given the opportunity. He also had severe allergies that we had just started learning about. His lactose intolerance became apparent one day after he decided to eat half of a stick of butter.
So, I was outside in the backyard, all by myself, watching two slightly younger siblings who had special needs. No adults were outside with us, and none were within shouting distance. I was six-years-old.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been sent outside to “watch the kids” so they could play (and my parents could take a break from us). Usually, it was uneventful. I spent the time hovering between bored and stressed out – and my siblings had a nice relaxing time playing outside.
A bee flew past where my brother was standing. It landed on his arm. He looked down at it without any expression on his face.
Then, he stared screaming. I was only a few steps away, and wasn’t able to get the bee off of him before he got stung. My first thought was that my parents were going to blame me for letting this happen. I’d failed as a babysitter, and was going to get yelled at (or worse). I was six.
Within seconds, my brother’s eyes started swelling up. They were almost entirely closed. The place on his arm where the bee stung him was swelling up in a terrifying way and turning a dark, purple color. I grabbed his wrist and raised it above his head, figuring that maybe doing so would stop the poison from getting to his heart. I’ve no idea where I learned that from.
He let me walk him back into the house, still screaming. My parents, who had by now heard my brother make this kind of scream after injuring himself before, (he had a tendency to try and walk underneath tables without ducking) rushed into the kitchen. My mother started freaking out and screaming incoherently. I tried to tell her what happened, but she wasn’t listening.
My father was home that day, so it must have been a weekend. I explained what happened, and my dad immediately started yelling at my mother. The two got into a huge argument, ignoring my brother, who was obviously in danger. I remember yelling at my parents to take my brother to the doctor, but they weren’t listening to me. My dad didn’t want to pay for an ambulance, and my mother was freaking out.
My brother kept screaming, and the chronological adults in the room weren’t doing anything to help him. So, I pushed a chair over to the wall so I could reach the phone. The handset was heavy and too big for my head. I tried not to drop it as I pushed the buttons: 9-1-1. The coiled cord swung back and forth, and I waited for someone to answer.
Things get a little fuzzy from here. My parents, eventually, realized that I was talking to someone who wasn’t them. My dad grabbed the phone out of my hand, and used a calm voice to tell the 9-1-1 lady that my brother was fine and they didn’t need an ambulance. My brother was rushed to the emergency room with my father.
Six-year-old me realized that I saved my brother’s life that day, and also worried that I’d left my sister out in the sun too long. My best guess is that neither of them remember what happened. They were too little.
Days or weeks later, (I don’t remember exactly how much time had passed), my family packed into the blue and white Suburban and headed out to visit my mother’s family. We lived in Illinois, and my mother’s mom and brothers lived in Indiana. I don’t remember the name of the town because my father always referred to it as “the boondocks”. He resented having to drive so far on a hot summer day, to see family members that he never quite got along with.
My father’s mother, my grandmother, lived with us. She never came with on these trips to see my mom’s family. This was probably for the best. My grandmother, who had German heritage, constantly called my mother’s family “the shanty Irish”. She complained that my other grandmother’s house was dirty.
My grandmother, and my uncles, lived next to a lake. They had what seemed to me like a huge amount of land. They had a house, and a barn (which my uncles filled with cars that they were working on). There were fields with plants that were taller than me. Years later, I would “connect the dots” and realize that some of these fields were being used by my uncles to grow marijuana. It had a funny smell that was different from the cigarettes that so many of my relatives smoked.
Upon arriving, we noticed that there as a large bee hive on one of the trees in my grandmother’s yard. My siblings and I usually spent hours playing in the yard, always with at least one chronologic adult keeping an eye on us. The yard and the lake were right next to each other. My parents never taught us how to swim. I’m fairly certain that it was my grandmother who insisted upon adult supervision of us while we were visiting.
Whomever was watching us this time quickly got us into the house after he spotted the bee hive. My grandmother was a very smart woman, and she realized that the safest thing to do would be for someone to take care of the bee hive.
One of my uncle’s idiot friends accepted the task. “Don’t worry, Cat, I’ll get that bee hive for you.” My grandmother’s name wasn’t actually Cat, but that’s what some people called her. My parents, and one of my uncles, were happy to let the idiot friend remove the bee hive. The other uncle, however, got a panicked look on his face and ran after the idiot friend.
They were yelling at each other, and I couldn’t quite make out what they said from inside the house. Something about a “shot gun”. I didn’t know what that was. My uncle was trying to talk the idiot friend out of doing something.
Not long after that, we all heard an extremely loud BOOM! It echoed. The noise scared me. Everyone in the house was silent, except for my grandmother who took one look out her screen door and started complaining about “idjits”. From what she was saying, I learned that my uncle’s idiot friend shot the bee hive, obliterating it into hundreds of tiny pieces… and making all of the bees extremely angry.
She collected up me, my sister, and my brother, and pushed us into a bedroom that had no windows. She gave me instructions to keep the kids in here and to keep the door closed until she came back for us. Six-year-old me wondered how long my brother, who didn’t like staying in one place for too long, would tolerate this. I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do if bees got into the house and came into this room from under the door.
There are moments, in early childhood, that shape a person’s views forever. I learned that there are some chronological adults who really shouldn’t be allowed to have a gun. My opinion has not changed.
Later, my grandmother returned and let us out of the room. My siblings didn’t seem the least bit concerned about what had happened. Maybe they were too young to put it all together. I don’t think they remember this chaotic, terrifying, day. As for me, I was greatly relieved to see my grandmother, who was the only real adult in the house.
She told me that the bees were gone, and that we were safe, but we should stay inside for now. The bees chased my uncle and his idiot friend, who had to jump into the lake and stay underwater for as long as they could to avoid getting stung. She didn’t tell me if they got stung, or how many times. But, I could hear them talking in the kitchen, so I knew they weren’t allergic to bees. No one mentioned what happened to the shot gun.
My grandmother was angry at the idiot friend for putting her grandkids in danger. “You can’t drink no more of my beers,” she told the idiot friend. This, I knew from hearing it many times before, was the biggest punishment she could possibly give them.
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