I walk frequently in East Lawn Memorial Park, where wide paths wind through gracious landscaping and you can get to a good aerobic clip, turn on the iPod and tune out the world. But I never walk these serene environs without recollecting the Incident. It happened over twenty years ago when I pushed my niece and nephew (Mary four and a half, Johnny two and a half) in the double stroller into the park.
At the time the need to be a good role model had taken firm hold in the zeitgeist and I wanted to give the kids a memorable tour, filled with gentle dollops of Mr. Rogers type wisdom. Plus I wanted them to stop giggling at my spiky new haircut, which was pert with product. We paused on the main path, and I had begun some mild oration about chirping birds when Johnny pointed at something behind me and Mary said, “Here comes Mr. Bee.” The bee buzzed my head. I didn’t want the kids to know it, but I had a horror of bees. This extends to spiders, flies, and the entirety of the insect phylum or genus or whatever you call it. I call it the Swarm. But bees were particularly horrible because they zoom, make a creepy, incessant noise and attack. I pushed the stroller, fast, up a sunny incline.
“Do you like bees?” Mary asked.
“Sure. The bee is our friend,” I said. No need for them to know that their aunt, with whom they shared 25 percent of their DNA, was a hater. Eileen and Jon were rearing these kids to embrace life without prejudice and neurotic squeamishness. “The bee makes honey,” I added, to show knowledge of nature. I pushed them under the shade of an expansive, leafy oak tree and locked the stroller. From here we had an overlook. “This cemetery is a beautiful place,” I intoned.
Johnny looked around and said, “Can dead people spit?”
“No. They sleep in peace.” A wise and gentle answer; Mr. Rogers would approve. I smiled down at Johnny.
He pointed up at my head. “Is the bee sleeping on your head?”
“The bee is in your hair,” Mary said.
“What?!” I shrieked. Hard to describe the toe-curling sensation as I bent over, shook my head, grabbed a twig and poked through my hair in what must be reported as a frenzy. I’m afraid I let loose a litany of words the kids hadn’t heard before. Their parents didn’t swear, but their parents didn’t have a live bee squirming in their new hair-cut. I grabbed the compact mirror from my purse and tried to peer at my head. All I could see were my eyes, absolutely crazed, huge spinning eyes. “It’s still there,” Mary said. Her eyes were big now too, as were Johnny’s. A sudden hot pain, like a burning needle, pierced my skull. The sting. Don’t freak out. Don’t scare them.
I glimpsed a faucet down the grassy slope. I ran to it. The pain was now like a searing, deep pinch. I turned on the faucet. Please work. First a gurgle, then a gush of rusty-colored water burst forth. I thrust my head under it, poked my hair with the twig, poked, jabbed, scraped—get out, get out, you horrible thing. I heard a noise. What now, some pervert come to steal the kids? Dripping, I ran back up to them.
“Blood,” Johnny said.
“He says the water has the dead people’s blood in it,” Mary said.
Oh. The rusty, deep orange water. No, I said, the dead people had not been bothered. Then I lowered my drenched head and asked if the bee was gone. It was. Mary said, “Your hair looks flat and silly now.”
Pushing the stroller back to the shaded path, we came to a mausoleum with lovely stained glass windows. Still frazzled by the sting, I nevertheless wanted to atone for the freak-out with another serving of wisdom. Two very well dressed, white-haired ladies approached as I said to the kids, “These windows are the most gorgeous when the sun shines through them. The sun is from nature, the glass from man.” The ladies paused and stared at me in frank wonder. This was odd, but maybe they were impressed by the disquisition on the artistry of man inspired by the unconscious glory of nature. “Do you understand?” I said to the kids.
“What’s a bastard?” Mary said in her clear, piping child’s voice. “You said the bee was a bastard.”
Time to go. When I bent to unlock the stroller the compact tumbled from my purse. I snuck a peek on the way up. My hair was flat mass of soaked gel in front, matted and jutting on the sides, like horns; my eyes and cheeks were smeared with make-up eroded by the water. No wonder the ladies stopped, and were still watching.
“Mustard,” I said as we pushed off. It’s wrong to undermine a child’s perception of reality by telling her you said mustard instead of bastard, but what is one to do when one is mortified, frantic and looks demented? I pushed them down the central path, past some grand monuments with pillars and numerous humbler headstones adorned with flowers, photographs, pinwheels and other whimsical mementos. There is a lot of life in this cemetery; it’s shown in the care lavished on the departed. And a lot more care has been taken to make the whole park an inviting, restful place of natural harmony. But I could dwell on none of this now. I had seen myself in the mirror.
And the white-haired ladies? They followed us all the way to the Folsom entrance, so I had to stop and tell them what happened and give them a chance to ascertain that the kids really were related to me. One lady said that she had been coming to East Lawn for years and had never, ever, encountered a bee. The other suggested that the bee, enticed by the goop in my hair, might have followed us from home. No use to argue. I wanted only to deliver the kids and get my head under a shower.
East Sacramento Preservation is sponsoring an upcoming historical tour of East Lawn and I will certainly attend. Maybe I’ll invite the kids. Mary is twenty-seven now, Johnny twenty-five. If they come they can hear truthful information, maybe even some real wisdom. As for bees, I’ve been stung since, and repeatedly insulted by other spidery-skittering-beetle type things. I don’t step on them. I want to live in peace. But really, I can’t stand anything that has more than four legs.