Keeping the Swarm

Keeping the Swarm November 17, 2012

They say it often, and it is true, there is no miracle like that of a new birth. You have joined with us in praying for such a miracle ever since Mama learned she was dying. Thank you for your prayers uttered on our behalf.

The doctors weren’t sure Mama would make it. It’s a fast-growing cancer, they warned us. First order of business was shrinking the tumors in the brain. Then, maybe, addressing the tumor in the lungs. We didn’t know then about the blood clots in the legs. Or the cancer spots on her liver.

She wept when they told her she was dying. Cried like I have never witnessed my mother cry before, not even when Daddy died.

Please, God, she prayed. Let me see Mannie’s baby born. 

You could almost see the wince in the doctor’s eyes, hope narrowed by too much loss. But he agreed with Mama when she said medicine didn’t number her days — God did. Doctors do the best they can and then they pray for miracles, too.

He did not arrive early or quickly, but all 8 pounds and 20 inches and head of dark hair of Boy Barnes is now bundled in the eager arms of Mannie and Nicole.

He is beautiful, Sister Tater proudly announced after assisting in the delivery of her very first grandchild, the way Native mothers have done for generations upon generations, whispering words of encouragement and strength into the ears of laboring women.

Keeping the Swarm is the name of the book George Venn, my former writing professor, has just released.  In it, George pays tribute to his own grandmother and grandfather, George and Hazel Mayo, who raised him up during those early hard years following his father’s untimely death.

They lived at Alder in the shadow of a great white mountain.  George writes: “That farmhouse – my attic room just beneath the cedar shakes – was the first place I lived; their home became a respite, a shelter from my father’s death. I lived there every summer for twenty-five years. I carry Alder within me now – a place where I could feel secure, where the anguish of tragedy could be countered.” 

It was his grandfather Mayo who taught the young George the secrets of bee-keeping. Uncle Buck is a fisherman, not a bee-keeper. He sent me a text moments after Boy Barnes was born: “He wants to go fishing,” the new grandfather declared.

Mama had a difficult day, coughing up blood, and a pain in her back so intense that hourly doses of powerful narcotics did not dissuade it. Still she got dressed, sat in her chair, poured over Scriptures and prayed for Boy Barnes.

George Venn wrote a poem for his own son about the lessons of bee-keeping learned from his Grandfather Mayo.

Inviting Alex to the Bees

You want to come along?

I’m going down to hive the swarm

on the fence this afternoon

Yes, you might get stung

but I’ll show you old 

Grandpa’s way among the bees.


It seems to me that the miracle of birth isn’t just about the creating of something new, but  about holding fast to that which is too quickly passing — the secret ways of our mothers and our fathers and their mothers and fathers. These, after all, are our people. The swarm to which we will always belong.

There is almost always pain involved in keeping the swarm, but what else is a person to do? There is no honey without the hive,  and no love thrives in a heart unwilling to be broken.

Welcome to the hive Boy Barnes. May you always find safe shelter in the arms of those who cherish you. May the golden-nectar of home be a healing balm whenever you encounter an unforgiving world. And may you never forget that you were the miracle we all prayed into being.

Don’t Miss This:

LA GRANDE, Ore.  – A book launch reception to celebrate the publication of “Keeping the Swarm: New and Selected Essays”  by George Venn is on Sunday, Nov. 18.The public is invited to the drop-in event from 2-4 p.m. in the Colleen Johnson Room at Cook Memorial Library.


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  • AFRoger

    I like the artful way Rob Bell’s short film “Breathe” reminds us of our fragility: creatures of the dust animated by the breath of God. Earlier this month in Nebraska, I met a little grand-nephew for the first time. Isaiah came three months early, so small that his entire hand could fit inside his father’s wedding ring. He’s one year, now needs oxygen only at night. Soon his own breaths will be enough. In the final days of Mom’s life, after more than 38,500 sunrises here, her breaths needed a little of that oxygen too. When the final one came at last, her breath returned to its Giver. Even the healthiest of us who arrive at a wondrous 8 pounds or so would have few breaths ahead of us, were if not for someone here to love us and care for us after we arrive. Days are numbered. So are breaths. Love can’t be counted or quantified. Love never ends. Life is because love is. All a miracle.

  • Sharon O

    Wow that is just beautiful. a baby to love… a beginning… and slowly an ending. Isn’t that the way life is, the circle of pain and love, love and pain mingling warmly together?
    praying for you and your mother and the sweetness of time spent together.

  • My sister posted this lovely link on my wall, knowing that I am writing about my own childhood as I am also helping to usher two grandchildren into the world. I am fortunate in that our mother is doing well at age 85, but all of us are aware of the wheel of life turning. May your time with your mother be one of special grace.

  • Steve T

    Incredibly beautiful … and so it goes … life bringing life … the never-ending story. In the beginning was the Word and the word was made flesh, placed in a mother’s arms and she whispered in her child’s ear … and the darkness did not, could not, ever, overcome it.

  • Gloria

    This was a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing your heart and congratulations to Uncle Buck and Sister Tater and their clan.