Here is a true thing: honey bees operate within their species as a collective consciousness. In hives, information passes between ancestor and offspring so that each generation hatches equipped with the intact history of their predecessors. In the span of one hundred and twenty-two days, the honey bee lives, grows old, and dies, but the hive’s memory spans decades.
Here is an untrue thing: I fear the day you do not recognize me. In reality, I fear that I have already abandoned you with my indifference.
Ten years ago, you bested your grandchildren in games of sunka and Scrabble. Seven years ago, you could not remember the name of the street you raised your daughters, my titas, on. Lola, this is my shame: that I have not tried to know you until now, after so much has been lost.
I feel I must write down all I remember. I fear it will not be enough.
The women in this family inherit small hands. Square palms, long fingers. Good for delicate work like grazing piano octaves, flicking government-issue Glock safeties, wielding drawing pencils and surgical instruments, folding egg rolls into neat little cylinders. I remember your recipe like this: mixing bowl for bread crumbs, pork, and shrimp; stacks of egg roll papers, loose corners flapping like tongues; fat furrows of meat marched across the wrappers, to be twisted until snug; sliding a finger-lick of raw egg along the smooth seam. You fold the rolls, while my cousins and I seal them like envelopes and send them to the fryer.
When I think of your hands now, I remember how they feel when dwarfed in my own gangly palms. You go to kiss my cheek as you grasp my fingers, skin soft and loose as egg roll wrappers. I flinch—there is no fat on your bones, and I wonder if they will slide permanently out of place when I squeeze too hard.
Besitos, Lola. You used to speak Spanish to your daughters over the kitchen counter, and Lolo, raised in Tagalog, would berate you for it. He is too tired to make such jokes now. When you snap at him with your towel or your fist, you can no longer remember why.
You and your eight brothers were born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, at the tail end of the second World War. City families like yours often stretched for several generations of titas and titos within a single gated, multi-unit housing complex. Instead of your mother, her sister—your Tita Mao—raised you and two of your brothers like children of her own.
A honey bee’s eusocial behavior is plesiomorphic: extending from an ancestral state. Overlapping generations of female worker bees participate in cooperative brood care, such as fashioning honeycomb cribs or cleaning and feeding the queen’s larvae. Somewhere in southeastern Asia forty million years ago, they carve six-sided tradition in wax and gold. Somewhere in Virginia four hundred years ago, they disembark from English ships—wings trembling and limbs frenetic—and scout red maples and tulip poplars for the first time.
Members of the genus Apis. Nesters perennial, colonial. Asian American migrants.
Summer, two years ago; window screens catch mosquitos and opaque blue twilight. A monochromatic photo of you and Lolo at a wedding sits between us on your kitchen table. Tilting the picture to disturb its sheen, I admire your curled, black bob and the ghost of your hand around your husband’s waist. You two are at a friend’s wedding back in the Philippines; while the bride and groom wear toothy grins, you, ever-elegant, offer a close-lipped smile. You pose for all your photographs in this album like Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn, golden age actresses you would have seen on Filipino television and emulated. I ask about the couple that clings to your other side, were they cousins? Friends? Pausing, you press one finger against the groom’s dark suit and make your hand a mirror of mine.
Them? I do not know who they are.
Another memory: we are alone in the white-paneled kitchen, you adrift in the space between the fridge and the sink and me banging my nervous-habit knees against the underside of the counter. You ask me twice if the pot of water on the stove is for Lolo’s soft-shell crabs. Both times I cannot recall. My eyes slide back to the FAFSA report my mom has forced me to fill out over vacation. You plop the crabs into the water until a tita swoops in, bright spiky voice startling you away from the kitchen.
No, Lola! That was for the pasta, the pasta!
Oh. I am sorry, honey.
A whiff of brine. Three generations of women listening to spoiled water glug-glug down the drain. You ask if you can help, but my tita blocks the stove with her body. No. Thank you Lola. Why don’t you go sit on the sofa, please? Suddenly, I imagine past Thanksgivings and Christmastimes, where the intoxicating smells of sharp garlic and onion soy sauce would snag on your pansit and siao pao, fried rice and salmon, albondigas and flan. You were the queen of that kitchen, conducting the buzzing orchestra of my titas and uncles around your domain. I cannot bear to look you in the eye, so I hunch behind my mom’s laptop and stare at the blank textbox for annual household income instead of watching you linger in the doorway. Linger, begin to turn, then slump away.
It is only after my shock at seeing you rendered useless for something so small that I realize my tita hadn’t feared the spill or the ruined meal. She’d flocked to what I’d taken for granted—the shuffle of your floral slippers in front of the burner flame, unsupervised.
This is my shame: I should have been watching you, and I was not.
Here is a true thing: every time a memory slips through my fingers, I think of your large, luminous eyes in your tiny, bird-like skull; your down-feather hair; your voice springing up bright and new when you ask for the third time where your husband has gone.
The store, Lola. I love you, Lola.
I love you too, honey! Ok?
I reply ok to your question every time you ask it, even though the word slides around in my mouth as if I am lying.
Worker bees that return from foraging gather the attention of their sisters, only to dance. They strut in figure eights, transforming tempo to wingbeats-over-time and posture to solar and gravitational angles.
They say, what we need is out there.
They say, come with me.
Turning backwards towards their matriarchs and forward towards their descendants, they communicate a life span that is never fully their own. They choreograph and inscribe upon the honeycomb, the future is here, here, here.
I call my mom with the intention of asking about your official diagnosis, but underneath I am hungry and restless for more snapshots of you. What were you like as an immigrant parent? How did you behave with your memory intact? Instead, my mom clams up, unwilling to divulge the less-than-idyllic details of her childhood. She fears painting you in a bad light—I don’t want to take any more away from her than she’s already lost—but I want to slam my fists and yell about how I am still losing you, how I need the truth, not rose-tinted lenses. Then, her voice goes quiet.
When she left the Philippines, she didn’t have her mom around to help her with these five kids. All her brothers were passing away; she wasn’t able to go to Tita Mao’s funeral…she couldn’t go spend time with relatives to mourn and have that support. A pause. And that was one of the hardest things about being an immigrant.
Your daughters and granddaughters and I—we are a gyre of mothers. Lola, I am terrified that this lineage of memory may be one I cannot carry on. So much has been loosed.
Delaney Heisterkamp studies Creative and Professional Writing at Miami University. She explores poetry, creative nonfiction, and paper sculpture, and is currently reading American Son by Brian Roley. When Delaney isn’t putting on programs for her residents or helping edit the literary magazine Inklings, she chases her favorite girl, the moon, around campus to photograph her adventures.