The ‘Honey Bus’ was a driving force in author Meredith May’s well-being
By Lou Fancher
Honeybees, an unconventional grandfather and a 1951 military bus-turned-honey bottling factory were salvation for Carmel Valley writer Meredith May.
May’s new memoir, “The Honey Bus” (Park Row Books, $25, 336 pages) is an intricate, extraordinary story that draws parallels between the social realms of honeybees and human families. A former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and fifth-generation beekeeper, May, describes her family’s toxic history with surprising candor and vivid, often gorgeous prose.
Following her parents’ abrupt separation and a swift move from Rhode Island to California, May watched helplessly as her mother receded into neurosis, depression and seclusion. She and her younger brother virtually raised themselves with the assistance of grandparents who displayed eccentricities of their own.
Her adolescent pangs, complicated by the difficult parent-child relationship and a family whose cycles of abuse and neglect went back generations, were counterbalanced by her attentive grandpa and the delight she took in the bees and their hives. They helped sustain her own sense of self worth and gave her hope in human resilience.
“We only need one thing to tell us we’re OK, and we’ll be fine,” she says now. “I watched my mother and how she gave up so easily, and I never want to be like that. As a journalist, I looked for people who survived – sex trafficking, war, poverty. How did they do it? I wanted to know. It insulated me from ever throwing up the white flag.”
May fended off the surrender urge by helping her grandfather tend to the 100-plus bee colonies he oversaw. She always knew bees were special, but as an adult in 2011, it hit home in a big way. The day she and co-workers put beehives on the roof of their office building was a turning point – she suddenly realized the connection to parenting.
“It was like finding a long lost friend,” she says. “I wept. I had an unusual connection with these stinging insects.”
During the 10 years she spent on her memoir, May experienced a range of volatile emotions. “I hesitated, because there’s a taboo about speaking ill about your mother,” she says. “But we need to make room for people who aren’t in traditional family structures, because there are a lot of us. We’re supposed to love mothers no matter how much they don’t love us back. That’s confusing and disabling for kids.”
Eventually, she found courage, empathy, love and newfound strength. “It’s made me brave, to write so honestly about my parents — doing it with compassion without making excuses for it. There’s no shame: We didn’t bring this upon ourselves.”
She acknowledges that her parents in some sense did play significant roles: “Even my mother, for all the things she didn’t do and all the years she spent in bed, a lot of that time was reading astrology and Agatha Christie mysteries. Before she became really depressed, she’d read Winnie the Pooh to me. My father would read Grimm’s fairytales – the real ones, when everyone dies. I remember thinking he didn’t treat me like a little kid; he’d read me such grownup stories.”
But the thoughtful, scientific approach and unconditional love her grandfather brought to beekeeping and to May was central to the woman and writer she became. Following her grandfather’s death in 2015, she moved beyond the first draft’s “wounded, therapeutic exercise to get my pain out,” using flashcards to map out the final book’s three-act structure, each “scene” ending with a cliffhanger that pushes into the next.
The bees, such a vital lifeline during her childhood, remain a beacon of hope and resilience now. So is this memoir.