I stand where I’ve been told to as dad starts the tractor. He backs it up to the wood wagon, which was a manure spreader and now stripped of gears, apron and beaters. When I get the signal, I crawl up on the tractor. Dad puts it in gear, secures me in one arm and we crawl past the barn, over the dry creek and up the pasture hill, the tractor churning over every obstacle.
At the edge of the woods we stop next to a rotting oak tree, some of its huge trunk and branches having crashed to the ground. Dad was here alone yesterday cutting wood from the solid parts of the wreckage. This late afternoon I’m “helping,” though my mind is on a decorated pine tree in the warm house, and all those presents beneath it. It’s Christmas Eve.
This memory is both vivid and vague, as are many childhood memories. It’s much like a dream and yet it isn’t. Each time my mind casts back I pull a little more from the veil of vagueness into the realm of vividness. More than 50 years later I reconstruct the scene. Besides a chain saw and all the tools of firewood cutting, we have two empty milk pails along. I do not know why.
I stand off to the side on this mild afternoon heavy with cloud cover. It will soon be snowing. The chain saw hasn’t whined for long when dad stops it and calls for me to bring the pails. In front of my wide eyes, he begins easing sections of honeycombs from the exposed trunk. His eyes bright, he shows me the honey crystalizing but not freezing. We put them in the pails. I stare at dead bees and others barely moving; their comb of insulation had been exposed since the trunk split and fell. They were doomed.
I remember the fascination of it all. To a little boy it was Christmas magic dancing with small snowflakes in the air. My dad had probably marked this tree during the waning days of deer hunting. He would return, just as I now return to my finds during hunting, to the round nests of bald-faced hornets and the tiny nests of finches. And, yes, downed trees for firewood.
Some 50 years later I still search for such a tree in late fall, when honey bees have snuggled in to live off their summer’s work. The circumstances have to fall right, literally, for I’m not going to fall a tree to take an active hive. But on that Christmas Eve, my dad’s find was just fine for salvaging while giving his little boy a favorite holiday memory.
My father is gone now, so I’ll never know for sure how he knew of the honey tree. I remember the afternoon growing dim and snowier as we made our way home. Christmas lights sparkled in the windows, and mom’s Christmas Eve meal cooked in the oven. And there was homemade bread, all the better for our sweet find.