Part One of this three part series: “They had me at hello” tells the back story of why we ordered and how I came to love our chickens. Part Two includes the “Six things my children insist you must know before considering backyard chickens” and Part Three will be a video blog (vlog) answering any questions that have come up, and responding to why I love chickens when I have a real job, and about 5000 other things I could be doing that are a lot less expensive and equally less smelly. In between Parts Two and Three, I’ll be offering some ideas for good Father’s Day gifts, so this all might take some time to unfold.
Still the fact is that I’ve wanted to write about chickens for a few years now, really since the postal courier delivered a slew of them to the house and I ran around barking orders at the kids to boil water and gather sheets. I did this because I remembered seeing it once on The Waltons, when a hyphenated-first-name person was about to give birth, and it was the best I could summon that Saturday morning when the box was peeping like crazy and I was reminded I knew nothing—let me repeat, NO THINGS– NOT one thing—at all about chickens.
We spread out a sheet on the front porch and gingerly opened the box. There were 31 little peeping chicks, only slightly less baffled than I, a whole box full of cute. With our order of 30 chicks from the hatchery, we received one “bonus mystery chick.” She was taller than the others and had a yellow pom-pom on her head (it was supposed to be there). My eldest named her Dwight, and she was well-loved for the few days of her too-short life. A few of the other chicks died in the first week too, which comes with the territory. We ceremoniously walked them to the temporary mausoleum in our basement—known to most people as the freezer—also containing the likes of Nibbles the beloved hamster and Leopardy the Lizard, who died from the tragic human “too much crying can lead to surprise throwing up” accident, of which we no longer speak.
Still on the porch after an hour, it occurred to me we should move the chicks to their temporary home in the bathtub upstairs—appropriately, next to the room of my one son who loves animals of every kind. So we brought them there, layered the bottom of the tub in shavings, and let them free-range about. The kids played classical music for them, invited their friends to come see, and had a great time with them. And, by the kids, I mean mostly me.
A few weeks later, as our house began to threaten of permanently smelling like chicken poo, the time came to move them to their new coop in the great out of doors. The challenge was that there was no coop in the great out of doors. Our little poultry pals were, as it were, flying the coop—levitating themselves on tiny wing, almost reaching the top of the tub, letting us know that very soon they would be flying over the edge and spreading their precious fertilizer all over the house. I changed the coop order to a “rush” and didn’t exhale until that midnight in July when I heard the non-muffler-sporting van of the “Amish Coop Builder” pull up the driveway and deliver our gigantic coop. The next morning, our chicks moved to their new digs, and over the next few weeks, we built them an outdoor recreational facility complete with a fancy door and every nesting amenity. Of course, I know now that we needn’t have gone the high-end route. All chickens need is a place to poop, eat, poop, drink, poop, and lay eggs. And poop. Sorry for the abundance of scatological reference, but it’s true.
We gave a number of chickens away to a local farm, and a few more to our Rabbi for her farm, and landed on the “right” number for our fancy coop: 11. One rooster (oops), 10 hens, with Tacklo, Flat Stanley, etc., among them. We waited and waited for eggs, it seemed like forever, but it was really only six months. Again, by we, I really mean me.
Then one morning, our two younger boys came in from morning chicken duty (AKA ‘doodie’) sporting a wee little egg. I grabbed them both up in a big, swooping mother hen hug and yelled, “MAZEL TOV!”
“Ummm… we didn’t…like…uh…lay it ourselves. The chickens did.”
“Thank you, yes, I knew that. I am just excited!”
By now, I had rightfully embraced my new nickname: “Chicken Lady”—or, as our youngest says, “Chicken Wady.” Someone came up with it the day we noticed that one of the chicks had a backwards-pointing foot. I started calling her Backwards Leggie and took her to the vet, where she cost us approximately 144.5 times our original investment. Against my better judgment, I developed a liking for Backwards Leggie. I started bringing her in the house and feeding her yogurt from a spoon and letting her watch movies with us. She liked Bruce Almighty the best.
All of this leads me down the inevitable course of this chicken scratch. What took me so long to write about our chickens? I haven’t written about them because they are, well, chickens. I am too busy with more important things to have the time, or allow myself the frivolity, of writing about them—especially when there are grocery lists and task lists yet to write with items of much more urgency on them (like changing the toilet paper rolls).
And yet, I am one to revel in the small things, falling madly in consumption with the latest thing I am into—baking fudge, knitting, sewing my kids’ clothes, cake decorating, card making, Zumba®, etc. My friends call it my “phases” and mark time accordingly. “Oh, that happened during the banana bread phase,” they say. Or “my muffler went during the summer of vinyasa yoga and decorative gel nails.”
Who allows for love of the small things, in a world so full of big things that need attention? Not me. I am among the working moms with too much kid stuff, too much work, too much to accomplish, too many things I already feel sorry about not doing well or fully. So I hide my love of the small things, allowing it only to leak out in the unguarded enthusiasm for which I’m known. That’s just a character trait, after all, yes? And it holds firm the distance between whatever little thing I’m into and my impending love for it.
But then, a week ago, a good friend gave me a copy of Alice Walker’s new book, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories. It lent instant legitimacy to my writing about my chickens. Who would not see it as cool to share a hobby with Alice Walker? Now, suddenly, I have chicken cred.
Reading this book, I was instantly freed from the need to restrain myself from the truth: I love these chickens. I just do. And it’s not just because they help feed our big family. It’s because they’re funny and beautiful and endearing. They are unfettered and live a simple life. They are not picky eaters, and they poop on their own food, which makes them pretty dang lowbrow. They are not trying to impress. But they do lay an egg or two a day, which I find incredibly impressive. Then they poop on that, too, as if to say, “It’s only an egg. Let’s not get all worked up over it.”
Last Summer, Backwards Leggie got eaten by a fox. I tried not to cry, but I did. I cried over a chicken. And maybe it’s about time. Because what the chickens have taught me is that working to not love the little things in life—trying to save up my love as if it’s only worthy of the bigger things—squanders the gift I’ve been lent in this lifetime of a loving, sometimes overbearing, mistaken, even clumsy, but giant heart. Even with all the big and little things held inside that heart, there’s room to spare. So today, I will stop trying not to love the little things. I will just love—as my mother would have said, like it’s my J-O-B—and even more, see it as the sign of life. My life, well lived.
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This blog was originally published by the Times Union and can be accessed here.