Uncle Jesse and I paddled the old canoe through the black water of the Edisto river running through the low country of South Carolina in a rambling deep black- water journey, headed deep into the heart of the swamp teeming with life. There was a small handmade barge attached to the canoe and on it a special platform with eight sturdy stainless steel containers for holding the trays of raw honey, called Supers behind us. It was just after daybreak and there was a curtain of warm gray fog that draped and slid over and around us like damp silk. Uncle Jesse pointed out the great heron fishing for bream and cautioned me about keeping my hands and arms inside the boat.
“Connie, the swamp is a lovely place, full of life and mystery but also dangerous.”
He drawled in a husky scratchy timbre.
“Don’t put your hands or arms down in the water; there’s alligators and cotton mouths in these parts.”
It was early May and we were headed to find the treasure that Uncle Jesse brought out each spring. White Tupelo trees are famous for the quality of delicately flavored honey the blossoms provided. Most White Tupelo honey comes from north Florida but there were a few groves of the trees scattered throughout the swamps of low country South Carolina. The grove in Tupelo Swamp in Colleton county was one of the largest. The trees only bloomed for about four weeks each spring; from April through early May.
Uncle Jesse courted the special bees that made honey from the blossoms. To make sure the honey wasn’t diluted with nectar from other flowering plants Uncle Jesse brought the eight hives full of worker bees and a queen on the barge behind his canoe each March. He then made daily trips in the canoe to all of the hives to feed them until the trees bloomed. The honey from these hives brought top dollar from fancy restaurants in Charleston and from folks as far away as California who appreciated the health benefits of White Tupelo honey.
I was eleven years old that spring and my grandfather and I made the fifty mile drive from rural Orangeburg County on Thursday, the day before. Granddaddy picked me up after school in his 1965 red and white Ford Fairlane with red leather seats and we rode all the way with the windows down and singing along with Merle Haggard on the radio. The perfume of Old Spice, Brylcream and Winston cigarettes bathed over me in a comforting cloud.
Spring, honeybees and flowers have always fascinated me. I can remember asking my grandfather how bees collected and made honey and how they knew where to go and then get back home again. His answer was to take me to spend a few days with his twin sister Tillie and her husband, my great Uncle Jesse and help him tend his hives. The spring was his busy time with the bees and growing vegetables. They had a farm of sixty or so rich black acres that embraced the river and the nourishment it provided.
Our adventure to Uncle Jesse’s place on the Edisto River began on a warm May afternoon. He and Aunt Tillie had a huge old white farmhouse with screened porches that enveloped the structure. There was a long winding path and dock that ended on the river itself. A screened room on the end of the dock was where we sat that evening with the two men and my great-aunt Tillie. She had a huge pitcher of sweet tea that seeped condensation on the wooden table in the middle of the room and a pound cake made with honey for us to snack on as we sat in the lavender twilight and listened to the night music.
I could hear the buzzing tenor of the mosquitoes, the croaking alto of the courting frogs and the rumble underneath of the gators as they woke hungry. The splash as they slid into the black water flowing underneath our outdoor room reverberated in the space. I was happy to sit and listen to the grownups until I was nodding off. Aunt Tillie shooed me up the path, into a huge old claw foot tub for a bath and then tucked me into soft cotton sheets on a real feather mattress under a ceiling fan that creaked a soft breeze in the still night air. She whispered that Friday and Saturday would be full days helping Uncle Jesse collect and separate the honey from the hives and the comb.
Just before daylight I was awakened by the sound of creaking bed springs and water running in the kitchen. I slipped from bed to join Aunt Tillie as she made coffee in a percolator on the eye of the stove. She quickly rustled up a breakfast of creamy buttery grits, honey cured ham and redeye gravy. My chore was to set the table with soft milky green Fiesta Ware dishes with matching cups and saucers. She sent me to get dressed, and when I returned, the men were waiting on me at the table. She poured them cups of strong black coffee and handed me a cup of coffee flavored warm milk that had me feeling much the adult. She also placed a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice at my place and told me to eat up. Aunt Tillie was a compact tidy woman with a crown of snow white curls, twinkling brown eyes, and she smelled of lilac bath powder and lemon verbena soap. The men laughed and teased me just a bit about being a pale ghost of a beanpole and how I needed fattening up, but I felt enveloped in a cocoon of love in that old farm kitchen.
The sky was just lightening on the horizon as Uncle Jesse wiped his mouth with a spotless white napkin under his thick white beard, winked at me and said to meet him down at the dock in ten minutes. He was a burly giant of a man, but his movements were gentle and easy. Aunt Tillie buttoned me into a soft blue long sleeved shirt and plopped a faded tan panama hat on my head with a crown of soft yellowish tulle folded all around the brim. She handed me a worn canvas tote with a jug of water, several ham sandwiches and slices of pound cake wrapped in wax paper. On top of the tote were a pair of soft leather work gloves that had buckles over the wrist of them and they fit snuggly down in the tote.
I was wildly excited on this morning. I rarely if ever had any free time, and this was the first time I had been allowed to be away from home without my parents. My role in my immediate family had been established early with the birth of my sister three years after me and the strain and unease of my relationship with my father. As a young girl I didn’t know the circumstances that had caused him to treat me differently than my sister, I only knew he did treat me much less kindly and lovingly than he did her. He looked for reasons to fault my behavior, however and he gave me more work chores than he did her. In fact I had decidedly more of those to complete daily and weekly than any of my friends. He kept me busy with household and garden chores until dark every day after school, and then I had to complete my homework and oversee my sister’s each evening before bed. Anything less than his standard of perfection was not allowed and failure to meet his rigid standards in any regard resulted in swift and harsh punishment.
In the way of children I didn’t question the obvious difference in this house I just accepted it and felt the love that oozed from the land itself as I ran down the dock to Uncle Jesse waiting at the edge of the river. He stood next to an old wooden canoe that shone with years of care and hand polishing. He placed the tote carefully in the bottom of the canoe and instructed me to button the sleeves of the shirt tightly around my wrists and the top button against my neck. His hands playfully adjusted the old panama hat on my head and then lifted me over and carefully placed me in the front of the canoe and told me to hold on while he eased himself down into the back seat. Uncle Jessie had a twin of my hat on his shiny bald head, and the shirt under his overalls was buttoned in mimic of mine. He handed me an oar and told me to follow his lead as he rowed us up the river and then deep into the swamp.
The swamp is full of life that sings with each breath. That morning it seemed we rowed back in time. The music was a symphony of water rushing along, the rhythm the splash of frogs and fish made that accompanied the trill of song birds. The loud keening cry of a single red tailed hawk echoed in the air as it sailed directly above the water searching.
The only sounds were those of nature and the murmur of Uncle Jesse pointing out things to me as the fog slowly drifted around and over us even as the sun began to burn the heavy moisture away. After steady rowing for at least thirty minutes, he finally slowed and brought the canoe to the edge of a small island deep in the swamp. The light was filtered through the trees overhead that rained greenish white petals on the water around us. As we stopped I could hear the drone of bees over our heavy breathing. After a cup of water from the jug, Uncle Jesse instructed me to lower the netting around my face and to make sure it covered me to my waist, then put on my gloves and buckle them snuggly.
He eased himself sideways and out the boat and then tugged the barge up until it rested on the bank of the island. He helped me out and picked up one of the large stainless steel containers. He told me to stay close to him as we made our way to the first bee hive nestled under a Tupelo tree in full bloom. We could hear the hum of the hive from the canoe, but Uncle Jesse winked and smiled as he said his bees wouldn’t sting, cause they loved the blues.
As an adult I know that bees can be somnolent and sated from a combination of pollen and heat and the morning was quite warm as the sun burned away the early fog. The eleven year old girl that day was in awe of Uncle Jesse’s seemingly magical ability to calm and then charm those bees with his singing of low country blues. He sang and those bees just hummed and buzzed around him, never stinging either of us.
”I can’t stand to hear him buzz, buzz, buzz / Come in, bumble bee, I want you to stop your fuss / You’re my bumble bee and you know your stuff / Oh, sting me bumble bee, until I get enough.”
His deep growly bass echoed through that swamp and those bees seemed to harmonize with him. He lifted the huge honeycomb out of the hive and brushed off the bees as he laid it seeping a delicate light amber honey, into the container. He slid an empty Super, which is what the comb attaches to, back into the hive, and he sang one last chorus as he motioned me to follow him back to the canoe. We repeated this ritual seven more times before the barge behind us was weighed down nearly to the water with honeycomb and honey.
We ate our lunch at the edge of the swamp and drank the water from that huge old jug in the bottom of the boat, and to this day I don’t think I’ve ever had a better ham sandwich in my life. Uncle Jesse told me tales of the Edisto Native Americans who once lived on and fished those waters. He told me of the loss of his and Aunt Tillie’s only son in the Korean conflict years before I was born and how the bees and river gave them hope and kept them going when all they wanted was to crawl into the swamp and die.
“We all bleed red,” he said. “We all have hurts that we don’t think we can survive, but God and good people are always around to help if we just know to ask.”
He said Aunt Tillie’s way of coping was to take in any stray that came her way. That included Ralph, the three legged cat, and Barney the blind hound that slept on the kitchen floor. It had also included a number of young folks and a few old drunks. He laughed at that one and said he didn’t touch liquor anymore, but he had been an old drunk before the bees.
“I had lost the will to live after losing Jake and tried to drown my sorrows in whiskey until Tillie said it was either her or the drink. I chose her, and I don’t think I made a wrong choice,“
he laughed and wiped his eyes with his huge old red bandana.
Uncle Jesse knew my father was hard on me, and he knew the reason why, but it was not his place to tell me. On the edge of Tupelo Swamp that day he made sure I knew there was a safe place to come and people who would love me always.
Bees have a built in system of homing into their hive. They can fly for miles and find their way to safety into their correct hive where they are always safe. Uncle Jesse said it was one of God’s miracles, and we humans would do well to emulate. We paddled that boat back out into the flowing water and the current carried us down river to the dock where Aunt Tillie and Granddaddy were waiting in the screened room with another pitcher of iced tea. We drank our fill and Aunt Tillie hustled me up to the house to freshen up as she called it, while Granddaddy and Uncle Jesse unloaded the trays and took them to the honey house.
I spent the rest of the afternoon with Uncle Jesse and Granddaddy as they spun the honey from the comb and then dripped it through a special funnel into labeled jars. It was my job to wipe them clean and then tighten the lids. Uncle Jesse sang while he spun the honey, more blues songs and by the end of the afternoon I was singing with him.
“I can tell the wind is risin’, the leaves tremblin’ on the tree / Tremblin’ on the tree / I can tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the tree / All I need is my little sweet woman / And to keep my company, hey, hey, hey.”
The remainder of the weekend was spent in the company of these three old folks who loved me unconditionally, who told me stories of the good ole days and who let me help them as they went about their daily chores. The evenings were spent down on the river with them talking, Aunt Tillie crocheting and me looking through books on bee-keeping and nodding off to sleep under the lullaby of that creaking old fan. I helped Aunt Tillie in the kitchen as we cooked and ate from the huge garden behind the house. Sunday afternoon came entirely too quickly, and I tried hard to hold back the tears that seeped down my cheeks when it was time to leave. Uncle Jesse gathered me in his huge arms, tickled my cheek with his scrubby white beard and wiped those tears with another clean red bandana.
“You’ve always got a place to come, when you want or need to, sweet girl. Just have your mama call us, we’ll keep your bed ready.”
He put my hand in Granddaddy’s and Aunt Tillie placed a huge basket full of garden goodies and a warm pound cake sweetened with Tupelo honey glaze on the back seat for me to take home. She hugged me and kissed my cheek as her sweet scent of lilac and lemon verbena wrapped me in a similar embrace. My last memory of that weekend was the two of them snuggled together in the back yard, waving at me as that Ford Fairlane headed up the dirt road and home. Grandaddy asked me if I had figured out the secret to making honey. I nodded as I answered him.
“I reckon making honey requires patience, love and Uncle Jesse singing the Blues.”