The chickens came first.

They didn’t cross the road. They paved it.

bernie solo.jpg

Ever try to kick back and relax on a holiday weekend? You’re just getting your chill on when your daughter, who’s still away at school, calls to tell you she’s at the flea market and they have the cutest little bantam chicks!

 And you say, “No. No. A thousand times, No. Do not bring home any bantam chicks.” 

And the following week when you go to pick her up at school, are you surprised that she has a bantam chick? 

The arguments are specious. It’s just a teeny, tiny baby chicken! They don’t get big! They can lay eggs – free, fresh eggs, Mom! When we go back to school in the fall Bernie (Bernie?! what about the eggs?) can join the flock on campus. Just for the summer, Mom!

I like chicken as much as the next person, preferably grilled or stir-fried, not pecking around on my kitchen floor. It was 2007. Avian Flu was a hot topic. According to NewScientist, it was raising “…fears of public health experts who worry that human poverty and millions of backyard poultry could combine to produce many human infections and potentially a human pandemic virus.”

Okay, so it was one chicken in an arguably affluent suburb, but...still.

And there was my daughter, chick in hand, willing Bernie to be cute enough to crack my resolve. Permission? Forgiveness? Minor details.

Clearly another of those incidents under the umbrella of my mother’s common refrain, “Just wait till you have children of your own.”

Once home, it was immediately obvious that Bernie could not stay cooped up in a box. Father and daughter went out to pick up a birdcage, chicken feed and wood shavings to catch the droppings and ‘control odor’. And hopefully stem the tide of  pandemic, as well.

 Soon after,  the friend with whom she’d hatched this plot called to say her mother wouldn’t let her keep her chicken.

 Imagine that.

chicken collage.jpg

Our flock doubled in size. Bernie and Gilbert were small, but not compatible with 24-hour lock up. I’m here to tell you that those ‘odor controlling’ wood shavings might work with hamsters, but chicken poop? No sir. Free ranging was not a possibility, so our hero engineered an alternative. A project that started with chicken wire around the base of the old play fort, grew as the perils of nature revealed themselves. It included plastic fencing, twist ties, a cover and a broom. Keeping the chickens in was a concern, but keeping the pillagers and plunderers out was the real challenge. Chipmunks love chicken feed, squirrels are not the escape artists you might imagine and hawks are always looking for a free meal.

 The summer passed slowly.

 The birds slept in a cage in our daughter’s room at night, enjoyed periodic bouts of free ranging in the mulch beds and spent the day in the makeshift coop. We kept watch and defended against birds of prey by waving the broom. We adjusted to the new world order  as we anticipated the day the birds would be roosting elsewhere.

 Mid August we had devastating news from school: the campus flock had been decimated by foxes. Such is the free-range life, but per the overseer of the grounds, Bernie and Gilbert would not be accepted for matriculation in the fall.

 Mom! How can you abandon defenseless chickens?!

 I don’t know, honey, but whether they relocate to a new home or a platter with a side of coleslaw, they are not staying here.

Her pleas to Save the Chickens posted on the school’s electronic bulletin board were answered with dark humor and thankfully, an alumna who, having smuggled a kitten into her dorm back in the day, was open to fostering a couple of chicks.

 I wasn’t sorry to see them go. But I wasn’t sorry they’d come to live with us, either. I was one with the absurdity and camaraderie of Team Chicken.

 It was several years before our daughter brought home another chicken. Just like that, our flock doubled in size.

 I drove her to the hospital and was with her when her little boy was born. I’d been through labor and delivery a few times myself, so I expected the routine. But this was my first time to be wholly present, to witness this miracle with total clarity and awareness. It imprinted on my heart as surely as that baby chicken imprinted on his momma. My husband arrived at the hospital moments after the little chick was born. Team Chicken reunited under new leadership: Team Jack.

 We didn’t have to build anything new, just reconfigure rooms to accommodate the new family. My desk became a baby changing station. Baby paraphernalia appeared; gates were installed; bumpers applied. Outlet covers bought by the gross.

The baby slept in a crib in his mother’s room at night, enjoyed free ranging in the house and the yard, with appropriate baby gates and safety equipment in place, and he grew and grew and grew. We loved, nurtured and cared for him alongside of his Mom and adjusted to the new world order without concern for the future.

Five years passed with lightning speed.

When we saw the future coming, I thought we were prepared for it. When they signed the lease on the apartment, it loomed. But they moved slowly, dribs and drabs of building their new nest as schedules allowed.

Last week they flew the coop in earnest.

 I was not sorry to see them go. I was devastated.

 I gave in to grief last week, because…how could I not? I watched that boy hatch. We’ve spent five years loving, nurturing, protecting him. I think this is something of what a non-custodial parent might feel after divorce, life shifts with an intensity you can’t anticipate. Seeing the empty places where his dresser and toys were brings the hole in my heart into painful focus.

sun shining in empty room

We’re working on a new world order. I’ll still be support staff; Jack and Papa will still have weekly Boys’ Night; we’ll still do church and brunch with the family on Sundays. We will adjust.

 It was sad to see them go, but I’m happy for them and their very bright future. And so thankful for the past five years and the laughter and joy that filled this home.

 After a week, I’ve begun to appreciate that there may be life after baby chickens.

 My husband and I have been raising them for forty years and it looks like we finally have the nest to ourselves. Fortunately, we still like each other, so we’ve got that going for us. I see possibilities for using my time for things other than taking care of hatchlings.

 I couldn’t help but smile when Jack recently asked his Mom if they could bring Sparkle, the class hamster, home for April vacation. I realize now that there are two sides to the coin of my mother’s admonishment, “Just wait till you have children of your own.” Not just a warning, but a wish.