A bee sting, my mother and my need to be touched
Irecently decided to start a flower diary. The diary would be weekly entries inspired by a shrub or flower or even weed I had noticed that week. It was intended as a way of encouraging myself to pay attention – not just to the things around me but to pay attention to the way I pay attention at all. As well as noticing the plants themselves, I’ve noticed something else. An impulse ton ar rat iv i se everything.
Walking along the Newcastle shoreline, I noticed bees hovering over the coastal shrubbery. They were hypnotic to watch. I could stand in front of them for half an hour before realising my eyes had gone out of focus. It reminded me of the bee sting I made happen as a child.
I’ve told the story of this particular sting a few times. Sometimes I say I did it on purpose. Sometimes I say I was only setting the scene and, putting on a convincing show, was stung by accident. By now I’ve retrofitted so much meaning to the whole act that I can’t be sure which is true. When told out loud it is usually for comedic effect. In telling it, I’m self-deprecating about the fact that I’m needy, that I can’t be alone. That I’m an attention-seeker. Instead of trying to hide these things, I pre-empt them. I get ahead of them with a joke. Isn’t it funny how I need to be touched? Isn’t it silly?
My father once said “you’re just like a dog! You need constant patting”. I was curled up in his lap and had instructed him, as I so often would, to “trace on my back”. Whenever his arm would grow tired and his hand fall away, I would shrug my shoulder or make a small murmur. Keep going.
This much of the story is true – my constant need for touch. Once, at the end of an especially draining work trip, I rolled my suitcase into the MAC store at Auckland’s international airport. “I’ve got these dark circles under my eyes,” I told the shop assistant. She showed me a concealer and offered to demonstrate, as I had hoped she would. After the strangeness of the hyper-social and incredibly lonely week on tour, that first stroke of the soft brush on my face felt like I was cracking a crème brûlée. I closed my eyes and felt every slight touch, willing it to go on forever. I left with three products I couldn’t afford.
On the afternoon of the sting, when I was about six years old – even my age at which it happened is a wild guess – I wanted to stroke my mother’s hair. Just to reach out and touch. She was busy at the time and kept swatting me away. I’d been wondering what would get her attention. If I was hurt – for example, if I had been stung by a bee – surely, she would have to let me.
So I sat, cross-legged and determined, in the white clover in our front yard. I watched as the bees moved from flower to flower in fits and starts. The
clover was the kind from which we would make daisy-chains at lunch. Picking a thin stem at its base, pressing the crescent moon of my thumbnail into the fleshy green until the skin on either side snapped, threading a new stem into the fresh wound, joining clover to clover, end to end, till they were strung together, holding each other in their new mouths. Like tiny cannibals.
I watched the clover as they bent and bounced back under the weight of the bees, drifting slow and lazy, landing and taking off with the lightest touch. I reached out with my right hand and purposefully swept my needy fingers through the clover, disrupting the bee’s path, until I felt the sting. At that moment, the foolishness of the whole exercise became clear. I ran inside and cried out for her, and it worked, of course. I curled into her, gripped her hair, and cried. My face was hot with shame.
The story is only ever weighted with meaning if I choose to tell it a certain way. If I choose not to play it for comedic effect. Sometimes I tell it as though when I was six, I already knew that my years of physical intimacy with her would be cut short. It’s not that poignant, really.
It is funny to call them daisy-chains, I’ve never made one from real daisies. We didn’t have daisies in our yard. We did have dandelions, which I thought were flowers, planted intentionally, until one day my grandmother told me they were weeds. I used to think the same of lantana. Sweet pink and yellow candy-like flowers. Once, visiting a friend’s property, her parents chastised me as I marvelled at the toxic plant. “It’s everywhere,” her mother frowned. “It’s choking the earth.”
It’s easy to tell the story of the sting as though it’s about anything other than a child not yet able to express herself and needing a little too much. It’s easy to think the white clover is anything other than grass.
“The story is only ever weighted with meaning if I choose to tell it a certain way. If I choose notto play it for comedic effect.”