“Where do the honey bees go when they aren’t at the Winpenny’s?” I remember asking my mother long ago, in another lifetime.
The Winpennys were friends of ours who lived a hillside away from us where we grew up. We did everything together. The Winpennys had a sugarhouse they converted into a little cabin. And behind the sugarhouse, Ned Winpenny kept his beehives, abuzz with the sweet energy of life, the honey scent of a Vermont summer. When I think about it, the bees were a fitting extension of Ned’s own energy and life. He was a tall, vivacious fellow, with a moustache and hair the color of chestnut honey. He had a thick rusty moustache that would catch a layer of foam whenever he drank beer from a glass. It made me laugh. Ned and Patty Winpenny made a fantastic match. They both loved the outdoors and Vermont and were totally devoted to their family.
“Up to the pasture,” my mother replied with an airy grin, “Isn’t it heavenly?” We looked out to the large field that sloped up in wild blossom from the stoop of the sugarhouse. “It could just as easily be Austria,” she sighed. I was in as much awe as my mother, but as a four-year-old growing up in Pawlet, the beauty of Vermont’s landscape was really all I knew.
We lived in the Winpenny’s sugarhouse for the whole summer of 1984, while our house was being rebuilt after the fire. There wasn’t a door to the bathtub, and the toilet was a rotting outhouse beside the wood stack. But we didn’t care, my two sisters and I. It was a great adventure. We climbed on the old red tractor by the shed, and chased the geese. We watched as Tristan Winpenny, the oldest Winpenny boy nailed worms and slugs to a scrap of wood. The delight he showed as they squirmed in the sun was too much to resist for my sister Emma, and so she helped him.
One day my parents were away, so Patty took us swimming at Lake St. Catherine. We stayed there all day. The tepid water did little to cool us off. We were playing alligators and I started to feel a little queasy in my stomach. Patty was calling to us from the side of the road. It was time to go. As I was wading lazily to the edge, I felt something squishy in my swimsuit and realized what I had done. I was so scared that others would make fun of me; I wrapped my towel around my waist to hide it.
When we got into Patty’s rusted, silver VW van, I sat down and felt a cold oozing feeling between my thighs. I was terrified but had no choice except to sit there and wait until we got back.
With a great deal of embarrassment, I finally had to tell Patty what happened. I’ll never forget how kind she was and how much better she made me feel. She was so understanding, and together, we washed my clothes. I took a nice bath, and the whole ordeal was taken care of without any of the other kids knowing about it.
When we finally moved out of the sugarhouse a few months later, our adventurous summer quickly ended. It wasn’t long before we moved out of Pawlet completely and left that thrilling existence for good. It was sad to know that the Winpennys lived on without us there. Patty and Ned had a third boy. They even bought a new car. We saw them once a year in the summer for a visit--then even less frequently. But whenever we made it back, I would take a walk in the pasture, go inside the sugarhouse to stir up old memories, and visit the honeybees.
A few years later, we learned that Ned Winpenny had died. I was in high school then. He was still so young. Nobody expected it--least of all Patty.
Ned died in late August--one of the prettiest times of year in Vermont, when all's abloom and at its peak. We went to the funeral, which took place on their property right by the old sugarhouse. Friends and family blended together in a procession to the middle of the pasture. There in the midst of the heather and milkweeds lay a coffin that the boys had made by hand. I knew that Ned lay inside of the wooden box, but I didn’t believe it, so I didn’t cry.
I looked at the people around me. Raspberry eyelids. I didn’t know any of them, and my parents only recognized a few. I had grown away from this world that I loved so much.
Patty wasn’t at the procession. Nobody knew where she was. Finally she came down the pasture with long grasses and heather in her arms. She was laughing hysterically.
“Ned’s still here! He’s all around us!” She rejoiced. “Let’s dance, have a bonfire!”
I didn’t know what to believe or what to feel. I looked over at the sugarhouse. It was full of old junk. The honeybees were gone. The blooming pasture seemed to not even notice. We didn’t stay for the bonfire. We left soon after; knowing that this world we loved was gone from us.
I’ve seen Patty one time since the funeral. It was few years later when I was in college and we were down in Pawlet for Christmas. She had changed. She was not the same Patty who washed my swimsuit in secrecy. She was talking about eating bananas for breakfast. Still it was nice to catch up and be back in that big old house on the hill.
When we said goodbye that night, I grabbed her tightly and didn’t let go. I was a few inches taller than she was, and so I rested my cheek on her ear. She became still for a moment and pulled herself away. “Come back soon, ok?” We agreed and started for the door.
“Wait!” she yelled from the hall, and rushed towards us with a big jar of honey. “Here! It’s not the fancy kind, but it’s the last of what’s left over.”
“Thanks, Patty,” I whispered and squeezed the jar to my chest, “it’s the best honey in the world.”