Tag Archives: chickens

Chicken Memories, Part #1

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[Many years ago, I enrolled in a Writer’s Workshop here on Beaver Island. The teacher was my friend, Mary Blocksma. At that time – possibly twenty-five years ago – she already had a long list of published works that included children’s books, poetry, memoir, and the most entertaining nature guides I’ve ever encountered. “Teacher” is too narrow a term for the wonderful woman who facilitated the workshop. Mary generously shared her knowledge and experience, offered kind and helpful feedback, read to us from her own works-in-progress, and even made cookies! I recently came across my tablet containing some essays I wrote during that workshop. One seems to be everything I knew about chickens, and every single chicken I ever encountered in my life. The writing wasn’t bad, though. This is just one segment  of my “chicken history.”]

My Dad raised chickens. We’d get them in the early spring: fifty fluffy yellow chicks. They spent their first few weeks in a large cardboard box in our utility room. The floor of the box was covered with newspaper. A light bulb dangled over it at one end, to provide warmth. Mason jar feeders, for water and chick-feed sat in the center.

It was our job, as small children, to change out the newspapers as needed, and to make sure the feeding stations were clean and full. We were allowed to handle the chicks – carefully – and we did. We took it upon ourselves to try to train them. We each picked our favorites, named them, and swore we could identify them. We taught them to jump into our outstretched hand, or onto the water jug, when we whistled (those of us that could whistle), or snapped our fingers (if we could) , or called their name.

We trusted that we would always know “our chicken” and that it would always know us. I imagined going out to the chicken house with its big fenced-in yard, with fifty chickens milling about. I’d call out, “Penelope,” and my own chicken would look up, and run right over to me. Of course, that was never the case. Once they moved outside, they didn’t know us, and we could no longer recognize them.

The chickens ran toward us all together when we came to spill grass clippings, garden weeds or kitchen scraps over the fence. We loved them all together, then. It was no longer “Penelope” or “Sally” or “Fluffy,” but “the chickens.” And, in the world of raising animals for food, that is not a bad thing. Having grown up on a farm, my Dad understood that, and led us gently through the process.

In the early summer, before the hens started laying, the young roosters were culled from the flock. That gruesome tale, I think, can wait for another day.

Artifacts to Memories: Things I Can’t Let Go

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There is a lot of stuff in my life. I was hoping for a more delicate term, but “stuff” seems apt. Gifts, purchases, hand-me-downs and inheritances. Sixty-four years worth of accumulated belongings. Enough to divide into several categories.

There are the things I hold on to for their sentimental value. Ranging from drawings and cards that my young daughters made more than thirty years ago, to photographs, to little gifts from friends and family, to my very first hard-cover chapter book, to my dining room table. The table was a junk store find that my Dad brought home, that was used as our clothes-folding table and extra-seating-at-holiday-time table for most of my life. Then, moved out to the garage, it was my brother David’s work and party table (the surface gained a few cigarette burns and saw marks from that phase), my sister Sheila’s table to relax with a book and a beverage…and finally my dining room table.

There are things I keep because they are necessary, or because they seem necessary to me. Most of my clothing fits this category…but so do many books, plants, baskets, candles, art supplies, art work, and a large collection of flat, round stones. I know there is too much. I go through periods of purging and paring down. These “necessities” are spared, because the thought of losing them gives me heart palpitations.

Then, there are the items I hold on to, because of an – often unrealistic – idea of the person I would like to be. A collection of beautiful yarn waits, in a basket with crochet hooks and scissors, for the day when I am transformed back into the woman I used to be: a young mother, making gifts and treasures from bits of yarn. Other baskets, boxes and suitcases hold fabrics, embroidery floss, needlepoint canvas, rug-making tools and accessories, and quilt squares. My life doesn’t have room for the activities associated with all of this “stuff,” but I can’t give up on the idea that it will.

That young woman that I was, along with a Katherine Hepburn/Jo March/Martha Stewart-esque vision of a person I would like to be are evident in excesses throughout my house, from bookshelves to closets to kitchen cupboards. I would like to be someone who drinks tea, does yoga, listens to cool jazz, wears hats, raises chickens, grows all of her own food, reads the classics, and hosts lovely dinner parties…including trifle for dessert. I am not, but many of my belonging would lead one to think so.

That is the crux of the problem, when faced with getting rid of things I don’t use. I love that young woman that I used to be, with a dozen projects going and a whole lifetime ahead to finish them. I can’t seem to let go of her, yet. I still picture myself with chickens and a big garden, doing yoga, jazz music coming from the stereo, James Joyce on my nightstand. Until I give up on the person I was, and the person I want to be, I can hardly give up her accessories!

 

Bringing the Farm to Hunt Road

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In the Garden, with Tomatoes Back row, left to right: Cindy, Ted, Brenda Front row, left to right: Sheila, Cheryl (hiding), Nita and Robin

My father grew up on a farm, here on Beaver Island. He knew first-hand about planting, growing and harvesting. He knew about animals.

We knew the stories. We heard about the bull that Dad could ride, about long days spent at the hot and itchy job of haying, about the tree that he’d sit under for shade when he’d take a break from plowing the field.

We knew that, as a teen and young adult, he’d worked on the ferry boat in the fall when they shipped the cattle across. His job was keeping the cows on their feet, no matter how rough the sea, because if they lay down, their stomachs would tangle and they’d die. That was accomplished by riding in the lower deck with the cows, and “jostling” them if they showed signs of leaning or falling.

When we visited the island, we saw the familiar places. We knew the horse barn, and the barn for the cows, with the lean-to attached where the sheep were kept. We saw the chicken coop, and the fenced path for leading the cattle to and from pasture. We knew the pig house, the granary and the wood shed.

I don’t think Dad intended to farm when he moved off the farm, to Lapeer, Michigan. He went to work with my grandfather, his father-in-law, and learned the electrical business from him.

It all started with a tiny plot at the back of our yard that Dad worked up, to show us how things grow. Nothing is so exciting to children as watching things spring from the ground where a seed was planted; nothing tastes as good as fresh-picked tomatoes, or raw peas from the pod. Dad loved our excitement and enthusiasm. Every year, the plot grew larger.

My grandparents home was on one side of our house; a widow named Magabelle owned the property on the other side. The land was bare, except for a small storage shed in the middle of it. Though ten years older, Magabelle was a good friend of my grandmother. She and my grandfather, however, were mortal enemies. Because of that, Magabelle had planted thorn bushes all along the border between her property and theirs. That part of the property became ours.  As children, we ran around bare-footed all summer long, and were constantly picking thorns out of the bottom of our feet.

After Grandpa died, Dad approached Magabelle about using her property for a large garden. She agreed. That’s when we started planting a quarter-acre every year.

Dad was not good about collecting money for electrical work, but he was pretty slick when it came to striking a bargain. One year, a truckload of manure was accepted as payment. Lumber, a piece of equipment or a load of wood chips might show up without warning. Dad used some spare lumber to build a small chicken coop. More to build a pig pen, shelter and feeding trough.

Eventually, Mom realized that we were going to starve to death if we were dependent on Dad collecting payment for services. She convinced him to take a job at the shop. Once Dad started working as an electrician at Chevrolet Manufacturing Company, farming became more than a hobby. Then it was life…life beyond work.

Dad worked second shift, and wasn’t home until midnight. Still, in the springtime, he was up every morning early and out on the tractor to get the garden ready. When it was harvest time, his lunch box was always full of samples for his co-workers: the hottest hot peppers, the freshest tomatoes, or the longest cucumbers. When company came to visit, Dad would walk them through the garden. Long distance competitions raged from Russell Green on Beaver Island to Peter “Doney” in Marlette to my Dad in Lapeer over whose corn was the highest, whose pumpkins the largest.

For us children, things were not as much fun. The garden was no longer something we did with Dad, it was something we had to answer for. Weeding and watering were our jobs: weeding in the morning, before the sun was too high; watering in the evenings, to soak in overnight. Mom didn’t dare let us slack off, or she’d be called on to explain why the weeds were overtaking the garden or the vines were dried out.

We couldn’t get attached to the animals. We’d get fifty sweet, fluffy chicks every spring, cull the roosters for fryers after a few weeks, keep the hens for eggs until late winter, then they were butchered, too. We’d get cute little pigs every spring, too, feed them corn that we’d gleaned from the fields, scraps from the table and excess from the garden. They would  go in the freezer, too, before the year was out.

Work on the “farm” was play for Dad; for us it was just work. By the time we were grown, most of us never wanted to set foot in a garden again.

And yet…the garden calls to me. In my adult life, I’ve never gone long without a garden. Maybe that’s how it was with Dad, too.