In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Lily feels lost without a mother to lead her step by step through life. However, with her escape to Tiburon, Lily finally finds support and consolation through new experiences and exposures. Specifically, Lily is able to discover an alternative mother figure: nature. Unlike her mother, nature is not a fleeting presence or a mere wisp of a memory. Lily finds inner peace and comfort in nature, since it is always present and constantly renewing itself, a trait that Lily never found in her mother.
Deborah is absent through most of Lily’s life, a fleeting figure. Lily asks T-Ray about her mother and is disappointed: “I did manage to get a few scraps of information from him… my mother was buried in Virginia where her people came from. I got worked up at that, thinking I’d found a grandmother. No, he tells me, my mother was an only child whose mother died four years ago” (13). Lily’s lack of a grandmother further emphasizes her mother’s absence, since even the closest family connections to Deborah are nonexistent. Lily comments about missing her mother, “The oddest things caused me to miss her. Like training bras. Who was I going to ask about that?” (13). For a long time, Lily has not had a mother to physically attend to her needs and guide her through life. Even the small things, such as training bras, remind her everyday of her mother’s absence. Lily is often confused and unsure about her mother, always reminded of her own ignorance: “I started thinking maybe I should find out what I could about my mother… But where to start? The night seemed like an ink blot I had to figure out. I sat there and studied the darkness, trying to see through it to some sliver of light” (101). Lily’s thoughts about her mother are like muddled “ink blots”; she is often perturbed by how little she knows, and is constantly reminded of the times she never spent with her mother, never finding any leads to her mother’s true self. From her days with T-Ray to her days in Tiburon, Lily is always aware of the briefness of Deborah’s life.
Lily describes the nightmare about her mother as a cockroach as follows: “If I told you right now that I never wondered about that dream, never closed my eyes and pictured her with roach legs… with her worst nature, exposed, I would be… lying. A roach is a creature no one can love, but you cannot kill it. It will go on and on and on. Just try to get rid of it.” (175) Since Lily has been separated from her mother for so long, she feels blind to her mother’s true faults. Her doubts and questions “go on and on and on” and continue to bother her in the back of her mind. Deborah appears as a cockroach, with the identity of a stranger and an unfamiliar pest. Lily scrutinizes her mother’s picture before her journey to Tiburon: “You could not believe the stories I saw in that picture… I laid the photograph beside my eighth-grade picture and examined every possible similarity” (13). Lily takes what little information she has about her mother and tries to extract any guesses or images about her mother’s personality. She cannot grasp her mother’s true personality, and therefore is always unsure and doubting. Lily’s insecurities stem from the fact that she doesn’t fully understand her mother, instead taking guesses and never standing on stable ground.
Conversely, nature is present throughout Lily’s life as a continually replenished and renewed force, unlike Lily’s mother. Lily describes the scene of the water fight, recalling: “Squirrels and Carolina wrens hopped as close as they dared and drank from the puddles and you could almost see the blades of brown grass lift themselves up and turn green” (168). In Tiburon, Lily begins to notice the cycle of rebirth in nature. Even in the scorching heat of the summer, the grass can grow again and renew itself with its limited resources. Lily notices that nature continues to live on in difficult circumstances. Lily also states, reflecting on May’s death after Mary Day: “You could die in a river, but maybe you could get reborn in it, too, like the beehive tombs August had told me about” (229). Despite the recent death of May, Lily recognizes the river as an unbroken cycle of life rather than a destructive force. Nature is a consistent and constant force in Lily’s life, continuing to thrive no matter the circumstances.
Meanwhile, Lily finds peace and comfort in the continuity of nature. Lily reflects on the river after May’s death: “I wanted the river. Its wildness. I wanted to… suck river stones the way I’d done that night Rosaleen and I’d slept by the creek. Even May’s death had not ruined the river for me. The river had done its best… to give May a peaceful ride out of this life” (229). Lily is comforted by the river during a time of grieving, knowing it will continue to flow as it always has. Lily depends on the river as a source of retreat and consolation, since it remains consistent despite the ravages of time. In another one of Lily’s nightmares, she envisions nature falling apart: “In my dream…. I could see a huge, round moon in the sky… Next I heard a sound like ice breaking, and, looking up, saw the moon crack apart and start to fall. I had to run for my life. I woke with my chest hurting. I searched for the moon and found it in all in one piece, still spilling light over the creek” (54). Lily wakes up in a panic because nature, her consolation and comfort, disintegrates in her dream. She has long been dependent on nature, and when it disappears in a dream, Lily is fearful and insecure once again. Nature is a needed support system, a balm, a shield.
By the end of the book, nature becomes an unwavering and long-lasting mother figure for Lily, replacing Deborah. Gradually, Lily learns to find love, comfort and support in everyday events in her life, ranging from bee keeping to wading in a river. Consolation and emotional support come to her in other forms. In addition, nature teaches Lily to thrive and live on despite difficult circumstances, allowing her to accept the truth of her mother and create a unique identity for herself in the midst of racial prejudice.