“On a rainy day, many offer to water the chickens.” – Armenian Proverb
My mother asked, “What are we going to do with all of them?” She was visibly concerned. She and my granny stared down at a large cardboard box. Inside there were dozens upon dozens of tiny, fluff balls. They were huddled, tightly together. However, they were far from silent. In fact, they were loud and peeped, incessantly. Granny squawked dismissively, “Well, it’s not like we can take them back!” And then she stomped off. Oh, I just loved it when my granny visited. There was no arguing with her; ever. In fact, Mom was left both speechless and holding the box. And just like that, we had our first chickens. At least, that’s how I recall it; I was twelve years old.
According to my mom, Dad and Granny had purchased at least two hundred chicks. Regardless of the actual number, there were far too many, she said. They were also costly, time-consuming, and messy. It was 1979 and this would be my parent’s first and last time raising chickens. Mom argued that it didn’t make sense to raise chickens. Especially, when chicken could be purchased at the store for far less money and far less effort.
Unlike my mom, my siblings and I had been thrilled to see so many chicks arrive. As kids, it just seemed natural that if we had a farm, we would have chickens; and lots of them. Newspaper was added to the bottom of the box. Then, the chicks were placed in our tiny bathroom, near the heat vent. Mom gave them a small saucer of water. At some point, there was a trip to town to buy chick feed. It would be one of many.
For the first couple of days, my siblings and I fought over the privilege to care for them. Before long, we then fought over who had the responsibility to care for them. After all, no one wanted to change the bedding. Looking back, I’m certain Mom had to do it. Day by day, the chicks grew. Day by day, the novelty dwindled. And day by day, my mother’s patience wore thin. Then one day, we returned home from school and the chickens were running around outside. Mom said it was time. My siblings and I squawked. We were worried about the poor chickens. They would get cold. They would get wet from rain. They might even get eaten by our cat.
My mother tried patiently to reason with us. The chickens were too big to live inside the small box any longer. They were animals that by nature, lived outside. She pointed out that the chickens had shelter in our old barn. We continued to squawk, “What if they died?” Mom, responded, “You’re right. What if they died?” Then, Mom lovingly confronted us, “Why did Dad and Granny buy these chickens?” We were silent and young, but we already knew the answer. These chickens would be eaten. Their death was inevitable.
As soon as they were “fryer” size, Dad sharpened his ax. Mom said he was more than ready to reduce the costs of feed. She and my Aunt Ann helped to set up makeshift work stations outside, by the garage. Dad hooked up a garden hose to the hydrant. Then, he sent us kids to catch chickens. Up until that moment, we hadn’t been allowed to chase the chickens. So, we were thrilled with this chance. We even competed to see who’d catch the first and the most. Only when we brought them to my dad, we watched him chop off their heads. No longer were we naïve to the how’s that made eating chicken possible. And no longer, were we ignorant about the real price of food. Instantly, we avoided catching our favorite chickens. Meanwhile, my Aunt Ann agreed to gut them, if my mom and I plucked feathers. We all lacked experience and it was a struggle.
Everyone worked all day and the freezer was filled. At one point, Mom confided that she felt sick from smelling so much raw chicken. And Dad ended up skinning more than we could pluck. By evening, everyone was exhausted and Mom was nearly breathless. Yet, there were scores of chickens remaining. However, my parents had no intentions of wintering them over. So, Dad quickly made plans to sell or give away the rest.
Those chickens may have been expensive and a lot of work, but the memories and lessons were priceless. Decades later, Aunt Ann still remembers that harvest day. In fact, she responded, “How could I forget?!” When I asked if she remembered what breed the white chickens were, she responded, “Honey, there are only two kinds of chickens. There are fryers and there are roasters. That’s all that matters.” We both laughed.
Alas, I will never know for certain which white breed (Leghorn, Cornish, other?) that Dad and Granny chose. I can’t ask them. Granny, Dad, and even my brother passed away years ago. No one else remembers. However, I will never forget the feel of those tiny puffs of fluff. I can still hear the wimpy crow of our first cock. And Mom fondly remembers that my brother had made a pet out of one of the Rhode Island Reds. He named her, “Little Red Hen”. And I’ve never forgotten his excitement, when he found her nest of brown eggs. As kids, we had only seen white eggs, unless they had been dyed for Easter.
Dad told us Little Red’s eggs were different from store eggs. He showed us how her eggs were harder to crack and the store eggs were very fragile. He showed us how her eggs had a firm, orange yolk. Whereas, the store eggs had a light yellow and saggy yolk. Dad pointed out that her eggs had a white that stayed in one place. And the store eggs had whites that ran all over the cast iron frying pan. Then, Dad did a taste comparison for us. The store eggs had a mild flavor. Her eggs had a stronger flavor. It wasn’t a bad flavor, just different.
As a kid, I decided I really liked farm-fresh eggs. So did my dog, Brownie. A couple of times, he found an egg under the barn. He’d carry it in his mouth to the garage. Then he’d drop it on the concrete floor. There it was shared with Missy, my sister’s Poodle and Cora, our black cat. Dad said he could tell they’d been eating eggs; their fur coats were shiny.
Unfortunately, my farm-fresh eggs as a child were minimal. In fact, Mom argues they were non-existent. She didn’t remember any of the chickens living long enough to lay. Rhode Island Reds begin laying eggs at eighteen weeks old. And nearly all our chickens were gone several weeks before then. However, I remember my brother’s pet hen and a couple of stragglers remaining through the summer. Before Fall, they were given to a family that made a promise to my brother. They told him they would take good care of his pet chicken and only eat the others.
My brother may have been young, but he knew a lie when he saw it. Besides, it was impossible to ignore the wink-wink the visitors gave to my dad. As they drove away, my little brother stomped off. He was so mad that his nostrils flared. As he marched past me, he squawked, “They’re gonna eat her!” Then, I watched a huge tear roll off his flushed cheek. It was magnified by his thick eyeglasses and it broke my heart.
Over the next decade, my brother, sister, and I grew up on the farm. We had lived in other houses before, but this was home. A place where we stretched our minds, as well as our legs. We explored and searched for hidden treasures, ran to and from opportunities, and learned hard lessons. Lessons that qualified the differences between being alive and living. We witnessed first-hand how life happens, intentionally and by “accident”. And we learned lessons that extended far beyond life itself. We learned of life after death, whether that death was intentional or “accidental”. And there were lessons that helped us understand the differences between deaths. Deaths occurred from old age, illnesses, accidents, harvests, or killings. We grew up simply knowing this and knowing this, we simply grew up.
Decades later, I was feeding my own chickens. It was the summer after the burials of my father, my brother, and my first marriage. I delighted in watching all the new life that surrounded me. At my feet were dozens and dozens of chicks. And at their sides were their protective mothers. As I scattered ground corn, I noticed a lone chick along the woods’ edge. It was laying on its side. Its eyes were rolled back and its eyelids only partially opened. I could have pretended that I had not seen it struggling. However, I instinctively rushed to pick it up. Its body was limp. What remained of its life, I held in my hands. Each time it inhaled and exhaled, it was more desperate and exaggerated.
Saving the chick’s life at that point was never an option. However, I was now faced with what to do. I could have tried feeding it to the cat, stalking mice. I could have laid it back on the ground; abandoning it, like its own mother. I could have held it, until it passed away. Or, I could have ended its suffering, swiftly. I made my decision and held my breath, as it breathed its last.