Of course, I told the bees. Told them that my mother had died. It is an old custom, for beekeepers to let the bees know of events that touch the family, and so I walked out to the bee yard and told them that my mother was dead, and that I was now an adult orphan.
The bees enfolded me in the sweet honey air and even sweeter hum-sound that is a constant, comforting presence dwelling amidst the wooden hives…
Inside the house, my mother lay beneath a pale blue comforter pulled up up to her chin, surrounded by bouquets of herbs and flowers from the yard. She had died only a short time before, leaving quietly on an out breath.
As soon as I realized that there would be no inhale, I walked to the living room and told Carter, “Minnie is gone.” Then, I cried in that keening howl that only death can ignite. I don’t remember gathering the flowers or tying them up with purple ribbon. But I remember telling the bees.
One of my hives—Pele—had lost her mother, as well. In a few short weeks, the hive had dwindled to nothing. When I sorted through the honeycombs to see what had happened, I found no queen bee in residence. When a queen dies, usually the hive dies with her unless the circumstances are right and a new, emergency queen can be created by the nurse bees. Or unless beekeepers intervene and give the hive a new queen.
There is no re-queening when your mother dies. When she leaves the family, there is much that is irretrievably lost. Memories, history, and the very skeleton of family culture crumble in the wake of her death.
In our family, my mother, Hermine Chernak, was a force to be reckoned with. She had created our family culture for good or ill, and we were all subject to that culture. Hermine crafted our family out of the broken bits of her own history. Left behind when she and her twin brother were only nine-months old by parents seeking a better life for the family in America, abandonment was always a huge specter in her life.
Hermine and her brother, Herman, were raised in pre-war Germany by her grandparents. Her childhood was idyllic. She grew up in a charming, historic cobblestone town a stone’s throw away from the Wagner Opera House in Bayreuth. She skied down snow-covered street on wooden slats tied to her feet, grew vegetables alongside her grandmother in a community garden that still stands today, and wandered the forest with her “woodsman” grandfather, learning from him the tea leaf plants and edible mushrooms.
I have startling old photographs of my mother in swastika armbands, with swastikas on her textbook covers. All German school children were automatically enrolled in the Hitler Youth, a program stressing physical and academic excellence. So strong was the imperative to be physically able and healthy, that my mother continued to do calisthenics at her bedside each morning for most of her life. Some things you just never forget.
At the opera house across the street from their small apartment, my mother listened to the impassioned speeches of Adolf Hitler, whom she brushed arms with many times. I gave her German copy of Mein Kompf to my nephew. Even after my father returned from the war with his stories of liberating concentration camps, Hermine never believed in the holocaust. She could not imagine such evil existing in her beloved childhood home, so she chose to believe the photos and stories were faked.
My mother has been gone three weeks now, and I am only beginning to unpack her legacy in my life. I’m certain the process will take years, and what I see looking back will undulate and shift as I live with these old family stories and events.
In this early stage of initial loss, what I have first noticed is this troubling awareness: I do not miss my mother at all. Of course, this observation sets off a host of others: I must be a terrible daughter. I must be heartless, dead inside, and uncaring.
Truthfully, my relationship with my mother was a conflicted one. Yet my attachment to her was strong. I believe this is often the case in difficult, ambiguous relationships: we are bound by sticky threads of toxic connection that we are ever trying to heal, to mend, to reconcile. And so most of my adult life has been an attempt to define myself outside of the bounds of my mother’s judgements of me.
It is the human condition to try and make make meaning of the events and circumstances of our lives, and so I have crafted a story of my mother to try and help me mitigate her influence on my life. I tell myself that Hermine used judgement and guilt to control her family, and that she did this because she never overcame that initial wound of her abandonment, and was—understandably—consumed by fear and anxiety. In such a life, the need to control anything and everything becomes paramount, and Hermine sought control with dramatic outbursts, criticism, and fretting. It was the best she could do in a world where mental health problems were stygmatized and antidepressants had yet to be invented.
Especially after my father died, and she was alone and terrified, Hermine turned to her children to fill the great void left in his wake by becoming both demanding and dissatisfied with us, with life, with the world in general. We would never be enough to fill up that empty crater, and in nearly every conflict we had with my mother, the central theme would be about what my brother and I were not: Not sensitive enough, not kind enough, not helpful enough, not “close” enough, not…enough.
I expected that when Hermine died, I would be struggling with guilt over my very mixed feelings about her: I loved my mother and was close to my mother. And I dreaded my mother and prayed for the conflicts and complaints to end. Now death had brought the dread and the complaints to a swift end, and I was suddenly left feeling nothing but relief and a kind of spaciousness in my chest.
Viewed through my mother’s eyes, I was always the child who had come up a bit short in most respects. Barring my stint as an author, which my mother saw as “awesome,” I spent too much time in conversations over the years with Hermine trying to defend who and what I was.
Suddenly, I had no one to defend myself to anymore.
Unnerved and unsettled, I scheduled an appointment with a hospice bereavement counselor to explore why the death of the most influential figure in my life had left me feeling nothing. Perhaps, I told Colleen, the counselor, I was just numb.
“I don’t think so,” Colleen said. “Susan, grief is pretty much commensurate with the love and affection we experienced in a particular relationship. That is why people can sometimes find themselves grieving more for the loss of a pet than for a parent or grandparent: The pet was a reservoir of loving connection. Sometimes, our relationships with our human loved ones are more conflict than joy. There is something inside of us urging us to move forward and away from the conflicted past, and it is a healthy response.”
“None of this feels healthy,” I replied.
“No, it won’t for awhile,” she said. “But this can be a crossroad for healing in your life, if you chose it. You can carry Hermine’s portrait of you inside yourself and continue to own it, or you can let it die with her. No one will be reflecting the guilt and disappointment back to you except yourself.”
We talked more about Hermine’s last days, and how—I’ll admit it—beautifully I had cared for her. Every word from my mouth those last few months had been comforting, loving, reassuring.
“On a scale of one to ten,” my mother asked me two days before her death, “what kind of a mother have I been?”
“You’ve been—I’d say—a nine Mom,” I answered her. “You’ve been the best.” Because I realized in the light of compassion that she HAD been her best. She had done the best she could. She had done a lot, and it was—in the end—enough. More than enough. She had given me the opportunity to gift her with the greatest gift I could give: A perfect and peaceful passing. In that generous act, I was not less than, nor disappointment to her.
“What and who will you be now?” asked Colleen. “What will you make of the space your mother has left? Will you continue to tell yourself about your failings, or will you bury all those imaginings along with her?”
When I left the counselor that day, I went up to my bee yard and sat by Pele, my queenless hive. I unlatched the wooden cover over the viewing window that makes the inner hive visible. Wax combs hung in perfect symmetry, like the pages of a book. On those “pages,” a very few bees wandered, directionless. In a few short weeks, all the bees would be dead and gone, the hive left standing like a deserted temple.
Yet even in the death of the queen mother, something tantalizing remained: The hive itself was filled with fresh, young comb. The combs were filled with capped, beautiful honey and colorful pellets of fermented pollen—bee bread—in orange, blue, and bright yellow.
The bees were going, gone, but the entire pure body of work they had created remained. Come spring, I will re-mother the empty hive with a swarm of bees searching for a new home. And what a home it will be! Already lovingly prepared, the table spread, the feast still fresh and waiting.
I put my nose to the entrance of the hive and inhaled deeply, the smell of honey and propolis and wax and summer flowers filling my lungs with sweetness and my heart with stillness.
I am making a temple inside myself. It is hung with sheets of golden comb and sweet amber honey. Along the walls of my temple, a resin-scented wash of propolis glistens, keeping the temple safe and inviolate.
My queen has died and taken the whole with her, the good and the bad.
It is my winter task now to become the queen, to learn to mother myself in the ways all of us would wish to be mothered: With loving kindness, forgiveness, comfort, reconciliation, and encouragement.
The queen is dead. Long live the queen.