A Man is as Old as He Feels




By John Gould

My grandfather kept bees, and if he didn’t have a comb of honey in the house when I came to visit, we’d go to open a hive and get some, assuming some was ready. Grandfather talked to his bees and told them everything that was going on, but he’d laugh about that and explain that bees had no ears and couldn’t hear a word he said. But it was old folks’ superstition that you should talk to your bees, and most important of all, tell them of a death in the family.

Grandfather had no fear of his bees and neither did I. Once in a while he’d get stung, and so would I. Grandfather said he’d been stung so much over the years that the venom no longer had any effect on him, but I would swell a bit from a sting, and he would put some baking soda on the place after he made sure the stinger was removed from my skin. He explained to me that a honeybee’s stinger is a hypodermic needle and the venom sac comes away with the bee’s stinger when it is left in my flesh. The natural tendency is to grasp at the stinger and pull it loose. This way the venom sac gets squeezed and you give yourself a subcutaneous injection, which makes things a good deal worse. To remove a stinger, he showed me, slide a knife blade under the sac and out comes the stinger with no squeeze.

Grandfather was forever carrying a box of honey to somebody as a gift. He sold his honey for twenty-five cents a pound, but the stores got it for fifteen cents and retailed it for the quarter. When I came to visit, I could have all the honey I wanted, and we kept pace, each to each. My grandfather lived alone by my time and cooked for himself, and he could make a pan of cream-tartar biscuits you wouldn’t believe. Many’s the time we’d make a meal of hot biscuits and honey.

Grampie told me the best honey our Maine bees make is from the apple bloom. Bees don’t mix nectar, he said. Next to apple blossom, he liked the white clover. (Bees can’t work red clover; their snouts aren’t long enough to get into the blossoms.) Raspberry honey was nice, but after that the nectars started getting dark. Buckwheat honey was dark honey, and so was that of goldenrod and the late asters. The basswood trees were always in bloom, he said, by July 21, and he liked buckwheat and basswood honey. So I listened, and so I "helped" Grampie, and I learned this and that and we both had a fine time.

I never went with him to Topsham Fair because of school, but he went every year and sold honey from a booth. He’d break open a pound-size comb and offer samples to folks passing that way, giving them tongue depressors instead of spoons. After a taste, most folks bought a box for a quarter. For quite a few years, he would take a working hive of bees to the fair, with a screen tent to contain the bees, and he’d give a talk off and on about bees.  It was an attention getter, but involved more work than he thought it was worth. He found he sold about the same amount of honey whether he took the hive to fair or not.

But what I’ve been coming at is the time his bees almost killed him and what he said. It had to do with his Fameuse apple trees. The Fameuse, pronounced fay-muse by the folks back along, was also known as the Snow Apple, and it came in early fall. The apple wasn’t a keeper, so it didn’t go into the cellars for winter. It was good to eat when it began dropping from the tree. Grampie’s three Fameuse trees were near the road, and easily subject to piracy. So he made a practice of taking a hive of bees over to be set near the Fameuse trees to discourage little boys and bigger boys from trespassing. It worked, and when it was time, Grandfather would tell his bees he was about to pick his apples and would come with a ladder and baskets to do so. His bees, naturally, kept flying and paid no attention, which they would also have done for thieves, but the thieves didn’t know that. When the apples were gathered for the season, Gramp would take the beehives back to their stands.

So on this occasion, Grandfather was gathering his apples when a limb bent and he fell off his ladder. I forgot to say that this was in the fall of the year when he had his eighty-fourth birthday in April. Eighty years of age plus four for good measure is a nice age for picking apples off a ladder.  Grandfather came down readily and hit the beehive with his back and broke three ribs.

He was strapped at the hospital, sent home, and cautioned to take it easy and avoid straining. When my father heard of this he hurried to the farm to see what he might do, and I went with him. We found Grandfather was doing, as the expression runs, as well as could be expected. He was glad to see us. He said, "It hurt! Godfrey Mighty, but it hurt! Why, it’s had me hobblin’ around here like an old man!"

So a man is as old as he feels, and that’s a good thing to remember.

From Tales From Rhapsody House, Or, Reporting Live from Our Last Resort by John Gould. Copyright © 2000 by John Gould. Excerpted by arrangement with Harcourt Books. $12. Available in local bookstores or click here.