Thank You Dad for Teaching Me To Love Books – The Start of My Story

Considering I have now permanently moved to a town without a single dedicated bookstore, it’s ironic that the trigger for this entire honey adventure was one beautiful children’s book. The book came from a crumpled nameless bookstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The bookstore had a guard dog with grey dreadlocks, and when it stood on its hind-legs it was twice my height. The basement of the bookstore had scarlet and gold scraps of leather scattered in piles of stars on the floor, and the walls shook from the 2, 4, and 6 trains shuddering on their tracks nearby. The book was a gift from my father, and the bookstore was his hideout. He was a famous book and print collector, and his midnight hobby was finding, buying, and rebinding valuable books. He was a self-appointed book-saving vigilante, and this was his secret layer.

When I was five, he found one book he believed would teach me about growing up. He bound it in slender python green leather with gold engravings on the spine, and he preserved the delicate illustrations with soft clear paper. We started reading the book together every night, going over the hard words, piecing together its colorful story.

The book was a first edition Waldemar BonselsMaya the Bee, and it tells the story of an adventurous incorrigible little bee who escapes flight school to learn about the world. During her travels, she meets a marvelous cast of creatures, making new friends and finding her own path. At times she is lost and lonely, and eventually she is captured by wasps who plan to attack her home. She ultimately escapes and saves her hive. As a young curious girl learning about the world, no story could have have rung truer.

A few years later, my father got cancer that crippled him physically but never touched his mind. Ever the intellect, during his last weeks, he demanded that he leave the hospital so he could peacefully pass on in his library, among his family and his books. My final memories with him are sitting beside his bed, after he could no longer speak or see, and reading him Maya the Bee. Here the story took on another meaning, one of loss, loneliness, and separation.

A year ago, I had this very intense feeling that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing, that I wasn’t living to my full potential, that I had something powerful inside me that needed to create and build and grow. I didn’t have a full plan, but there was this buzzing throbbing feeling that whatever I was going to do, it had to do with bees. They had captured my imagination for years, and since first coming to Turkey’s Northeast on my Fulbright Scholarship, I had been both quietly hunting for honey and studying how beekeeping can change society for quite sometime.

After quitting my job, selling all of my things, and moving back to Turkey, I finally arrived at a quiet afternoon where I could just lay down next to a hive and watch bees. Aged at over 60 million years old, watching bees is like watching a small part of the universe being built. They are these incredibly complex thinking, perceiving, highly euro-social, and strangely emotional creatures that can change their mood and respond to situations based on even the slightest triggers, like a smell, a subtle message, or a small bump. But where their power comes from is how they convey these messages to one another, through tiny potent pulses of communication, little daily stories relaying events, information, and dare I say ideas.

Throughout the summer, I observed both bee hives and small Turkish village communities, and after each interaction, I felt more and more like I was allowed passage into a highly complex ancient world that very few people know much about. With bees, it was the way they communicated, the way they shifted responsibility (like when a hive decides to swarm, leaving behind all of the comb they have built up to a new unborn queen without even a second glance), the way they are territorial, guarding the entrance of the hive, but understanding when a baby bee from another hive gets lost and wanders in, to not attack it, but gently push it towards the entrance. For my Turkish communities, it was the way they told me stories, about how some of their families had picked up their lives and left this region without looking back, the only signs of their existence were faded photographs hung on the colorful kilims (Turkish rugs) on the walls. Families opened their arms and accepted me into their homes like a new member, a rediscovered fifth daughter. Every now and then, I think back to Maya the Bee, how she was welcomed into the homes of many foreign insects and creatures, as a young bug with a whole lot to learn.

Sometimes, when I am quietly sitting next to a hive, hearing a thousand hums of bee wings and clicking antennas, I think of all the things Maya the Bee taught me, and even more so, the man who gave me this book: a curiosity about bees, about complex social systems, about finding our own path, experiencing loneliness, and loss, exploring the world and building a new family in foreign lands. The thing I love most about bees, is that above all else, they are a creature of stories. Small ones, about food, and pollen and nectar. Big ones, about threats to the hive, mating, and moving. They communicate in all sorts of ways, with dancing, pheromones, antenna touches, and smells. Likewise, sharing our own stories builds our communities, and gives our lives purpose. They help us forge connections with the ones we love, build us into who we are, and direct us towards what we know we can become.

Thank you Bullwinkle, the roaming literary cowboy, for teaching me a love of books, learning, and discovery. You lived one hell of a life and planted the seeds for one roller coaster of a story.

About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on June 17, 2012, in Culture, Travel, Women, youth and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Amazing how books can set you off on a journey. I’m both a librarian and a beekeeper, so really appreciated this post. What a great dad to have.

  2. What a wonderful post for Father’s Day! Wink would have loved it.
    It made me smile; it made me reminisce; it made me cry. :-)

  3. What a beautiful man your papa! Not only the love of books and bees but the courage to go the distance. Thank you Cat.

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