an ode to chickens

When the picture in this Sunday’s snapshot memory (below) was taken I was about 13 years old, and I’m not in the picture; I’m the photographer with my new Ansco drop-lens camera that I wrote about previously. We (Mama, Daddy and I on our sharecropper farm) were temporarily taking care of my two-year-old niece, probably when her next younger sister was born, so that would have made it April of 1955.

Melonie was having a hard time being separated from her parents for the first time, so Mama and I had taken her to the chicken yard to see the chickens. (Turn back the years by ten and the tow-headed little girl could just as well have been me as her baby-fine hair is combed exactly how Mama always combed mine when I was little–to keep it out of my eyes–and there was a great resemblance.) By this time my siblings had all moved on, to marriage and lives with jobs in town, or to way off states to serve in the armed forces, so having another kid around–especially a near-baby–was a real novelty for me.

When my sister was a teenager, wanting all the things her peers had, either money for extras OR my father’s fist were in too tight a grip. He made most decisions about purchases other than food–even the furniture in our house). He would grumble about the schools fostering all the kids to want, want, want. Money for class trips, money for this weekly reader or that thing. He was almost convinced the money in some way lined the pockets of the principal and his wife because they were big-city types planting big city ideas in the minds of country children. In this way, he was remarkably like his own father, but I forgave him long ago because that’s the kind of behavior that results when we live unexamined lives as he did. Eventually we go onto autopilot and become our mothers and fathers–with all their good qualities as well as the bad. Especially the bad.

We didn’t have proms at our country school, but all the girls looked forward to dressing up in long, frothy dresses in pastel shades at least twice in their lives, and go with their nattily dressed boyfriends to the annual Junior/Senior Banquet in the school cafeteria. Some, like my sister, had boyfriends who lived in the city. That gave her a “one up” on the girls whose boyfriends were sons of the dirt farmers.

At any rate, if there was to be money available in order to buy a few extras like banquet gowns, Mama knew she would have to find some other way to get them–the same as she did when she wanted a good set of cooking pots. (See my pot party post here.) So she went to the local seed & feed store in Providence and arranged to acquire some Leghorn bitties.

Leghorn chickens (in the south we pronounced it “leggern”) produce the majority of the world’s white eggs, and in those days the “hatching” instinct (called “brooding”) hadn’t been completely bred out of them as it has today. They were too small to make good fryers, but the occasional rooster in the yard was very often culled out as Sunday dinner. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that a rooster isn’t necessary for hens to lay eggs. They can lay eggs without the rooster; all they  need the rooster for is to fertilize them (before they produce the fertilized eggs) if the desired product is chicks rather than eggs to eat.

The feed store then delivered feed (we called chicken mash) in age-related appropriateness, usually once a week. As the chicks grew older, we depended less on store food and proudced our own cracked corn–another of my after-school duties. When the bitties were completely grown and laying eggs, the same proprietor would buy the eggs and sell some of them in the grocery part of his general store, and distribute the others to the bigger city stores.

I remember seeing the hatching eggs lined up in incubators in the store’s large back room with special lighting when I was a child. If you happened to be there at just right time, you might be  allowed to step inside to be treated to the tiny little sounds of peep peeping and see sopping wet, half-drowned looking little bitties–some with bits and pieces of the shell sticking to their little bodies. I remember standing there and watch in fascination as they dried quickly to become little balls of soft yellow fluff on spindly little legs.

It didn’t take me long to distinguish the two very distinct peeping sounds: the happy little “here’s food and water and everything’s great in this big new world” sound, or the sharper “I’m cold! Where’s my mommy” sound. If you learned to satisfy those with the latter sound–by picking it up and cuddling it in your hand or cradling it in a sweater pocket, you were treated to me ultimate bittie sound: “Oooooh, this new big world is so strange and I’m so tired…I think I’ll just have a little nap” sound. Next to the sounds of my own human babies discovering their own voices in their cribs many years later, I can think of no other sound quite so soothing as those little sleeping bitties.

In every batch of bitties we took home over the years, I remember numbers of the more delicate little critters didn’t take well to the confusion of being hatched in that big room without any mama chickens. It didn’t take long to know they would never make it on their own. That’s where I came in. I could have been a hen had my incarnation taken a different turn. I’d place the chicks in a big cardboard box and hang a low-wattage light bulb over the side. Then I’d filch mayonnaise jar lids–one to fill with the smoothest chicken mash I could find and the other for water. I’d usually find an old baby blanket or towel (if I could sneak it past Mama) and arrange it enticingly in the corner to provide a warm and save haven. Sometimes I sat for hours leaning over the box cuddling a very sick bitty until he fell asleep. Then I’d arrange the covers snugly around him, and wonder of wonders, most of them survived.

When all the chicks were grown enough to survive outdoors, they were transferred to the special pen built for them and every afternoon as the sun began to set they instinctively went inside the shed to roost on the wooden slats covered with chicken wire.

Eventually, when they become full-fledged layers, my job was to gather the eggs every afternoon after school, then wash and dry them and pack them into special crates to be ready for pickup. Sometimes, because a rooster had been allowed to stay a little too long in the pen, one or more hens tried to brood. They were discouraged by taking their eggs away as soon as they laid, so I’d have to poke my hand in the nest box and lift then hen’s backside gently up and steal the eggs. I got lots of henpecks out of that. Once I lifted a hen gently and found not eggs, but a snake coiled under her. Naturally I jerked my hand out fast as a jack rabbit–but not soon enough not to have the feeling of that snake’s coiled body etched into memory forever!

Here it is more than 50 years later, and I have such a soft place for all animals but chickens especially. Growing up on a farm miles away from other children or siblings my age, they were my friends. And though the gown I would have worn to Junior/Senior banquet was a hand-me-down from my sister, those chickens became crucial to not just our “material” extras, they were part of my mother’s coming of age in discovering she could do anything if she put her mind to it.  And the gown my sister wore to her big banquet I wore to sing in two weddings a couple of years later . . . thanks to all those hard laying Leggerns I helped raise.

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10 thoughts on “an ode to chickens

  1. Oh wow!!!!! Your dad sounds like my mother’s parents which probably explained why the girls were not encouraged to finish high school and headed to the big city as soon as they could. And I remember the henhouse and I loved the chicks, too, when we visited.

    This is another great story!!!!! Thanks!!!!!

    • My father was as much a victim of his time and circumstances as we all are. It would have been easy to repeat his mistakes, but thank god I have a great lifetime partner and co-parent in Hubby who gently revealed my pattern and patiently helped me overcome it. No doubt your parent’s parents did the best they could in the circumstances, and all you can do is forgive them. Thanks for the nice comment! XXs

  2. You’re too good – I could see the damn snake. Jeez!

    One of my dad’s dinner companions at the nursing home had been a chicken farmer. Dad was fascinated by his life (having been raised in Boston), and each time I visited I heard more of the stories told originally by Walter (the chicken farmer).

    Your mom sounds like a very smart lady!

    • Was it coincidence that the previous night (early morning actually, after I’d lain awake for awhile) that I dreamed about a rattlesnake under a dishpan in our house?! Anxiety takes various shapes, doesn’t it? Especially in our dreams. Mama was smart, and dedicated to her children and sacrificed far more than we deserved. I wished I’d told her so when she was alive. I would say, “Thanks, Ma! You did a great job, and now I know it.”

  3. A great story, which I finally got around to reading. I also have a relationship to chickens–entirely different than yours. My father sold chickens to restaurants. Mostly he worked out of a truck, but there was always that last delivery he made with the car on the way home. The car always smelled of, shall we say, ripe chicken. It was years before I could eat any chicken that wasn’t completely disguised. Thanks for giving me a different picture.

  4. Thank you, Ruthe. I must hasten to add that I could give you disgusting odors too, but mine would be from the smell of wet feathers from those poor roosters culled out for Sunday dinner when–after Mama had wrung their necks–they were dipped into scalding hot water to make it easier to remove the feathers. Disgusting enough? Yep, I got to do that job more than a few times too many too. And I didn’t go on to talk about the sh** the barefoot kid that was me stepped into. But I imagine you can imagine for yourself how that felt oozing up between my toes!

  5. Pingback: egging adventure by one o’the nine « My Wintersong

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