Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Graduation, Death, and Chickens

Despite the fact that, when I was 13, I would have cried if someone told me I had to do it, I stood in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, on Friday, reading names at my school's graduation. I had no fear—I just enjoyed the smiling faces of each kid as I called each forth to shake hands with the school board and principal. I was giggly. I told kids I was proud of them as they walked up to me. The students' enthusiasm and pride spread to me, and I floated on adrenaline and joy.

While I was experiencing this, my grandmother died.

Even in my giddiness, I knew my grandmother wasn't doing well because my parents called just as I arrived at District Field for the ceremony to tell me that my grandmother was still asleep from the anesthesia she received in her hip surgery that day. They weren't hopeful, but they expected her to last a day or two. Instead, she passed quickly, never waking up from her surgery. When graduation had finished and I made it back to my car, I found a message waiting for me, letting me know she had died.

I'm going to have to take some time to think about how best to write about Harriet, my grandmother, but I can tell you this now: she was tiny, she was smart, and she loved books. When I say she loved books, I mean she loved them so much that she was a librarian, that she brought books home for me the day I was born, and that she read every single day of her life. Part of my obsession with the written word had to have come from her. Someday later I'll tell more about her.

So Friday night, I was high on graduation-adrenaline and down from the loss of my grandmother, and the combination of feelings, along with the excitement of what the next day offered kept me from sleep. I spent the night tossing and turning while processing the memories of my grandmother and thinking about the smiles of my students; I replayed their graduation speeches again and again in my head, excited for their futures and recognizing how little they controlled them. I got up at 2 am to do some kitchen cleaning, and though I went to bed again to try to sleep, I gave in for real and got up in the early morning and went outside to finish what needed to be finished: our coop.

ECG had done such a good job converting a doghouse and building a pen to attach it to for our portable coop, and I had spent a couple afternoons priming it and painting it, but we hadn't had a chance to finish attaching the wire walls and floor that would protect the birds from the raccoons, coyotes, and hawks in our 'hood. But I did it early Saturday morning, well before ECG was awake and before most of my neighbors roused. I wrestled with hardware cloth and managed to give myself hundreds of small puncture wounds as I lined the frame. I finished by 9am.

I rushed out of the house with a map and an empty pet carrier, picked up my friend SWW, and we were on the road to a ranch out in the country where my chickens waited for me.

In the weeks prior, while looking for a reliable place to buy pullets (female pre-laying chickens), I found a ranch not too far away that raised interesting breeds. I called the owner and had several frustrating conversations with her: she was a know-it-all, scattered, and impatient. But, she was close and she had a good product, and when it came down to it, those things won out. When SWW and I drove out there Saturday, we fully expected to have a quick encounter with the rancher, purchase the chickens, and get back on our way home.

It didn't turn out that way at all.

Instead of crazy-angry, the kind of crazy we expected from the rancher, we found crazy-fun. First off, when we got there, she wasn't there. We waited around the gate, taking pictures of the friendly roosters who kept wandering over to check us out. Her entire front yard was one cage after another: chickens, ducks, peacocks, turkeys, geese, pigs, an emu, and in the back, behind the house, we could see goats and hints of other animals. When she did arrive, she arrived in a whirlwind of dirt, animal dander, and happy hysteria. She jumped out of her car and into her house, running back out seconds later with two baby animals under her arms.

She shoved a baby chihuahua into my arms, a baby potbellied pig into SWW's and shouted, "Here, hold these guys! They need to be socialized!" Then she turned to a giant Brahma rooster and yelled, "Chick-Chick!" She turned to us, "See, he knows his name!" She turned back to the rooster, "Get back over the fence! You know you need to be on this side!" Chick Chick came to her, she picked him up and shoved him into my arm not occupied by the chihuahua. "Here, hold him for a second!" While SWW and I held our assigned animals, the rancher ran off again. She came back with the chihuahua's parents and gave us them to hold too. We were out of arms, so we just started putting animals down on the ground around us. She went off and came back with the potbellied pig's mama in her arms (quite a bit to carry), the pig's udders (are they called udders on a pig?) swollen huge. Luckily, she didn't shove this one on us too, but just showed her off. A little later, she ran back to the emu cage and shouted at us to look. "Watch! This is Emmett! Emmett loves attention!" And she began stroking his head and neck until he wrapped his neck against her own. She massaged his back, rubbing the opposite directions of feathers, and he collapsed into an avian pile of relaxation against her, and she fell down into the dusty dirt with him, laughing.

Neighbors came by and the animals were passed around their arms. An elderly couple with a van full of day old bread came by to give it to the animals, and the chihuahua ended up in the wife's arms for a while. Grandparents brought their grandsons by with a few roosters in tow; their 4H project gave them more boy-chickens than they expected, and they gave them to the rancher to take care of. A woman and her adult son brought a peacock chick that the man had found being chased by his cat. The rancher put the chick in a cage with food and water. People flocked to the rancher because they knew, kooky as this woman is, she'd take care of whatever they brought her.

When the stream of people slowed a little, the rancher showed me how to tell the difference between a male and a female chick, what a chick looks like when it's scared itself to death and broken its own neck, and, as she rubbed it between her fingers, demonstrating its texture and color, what healthy chicken poop looks like. This is a woman who thrills in life: noise and death and shit and genetalia. And when I was with her on Saturday, that thrill was contagious.

As a result, I brought home three chickens on Saturday that may not be the most practical, may not be the most productive, but certainly may bring the most fascination to my life: One Black Jersey Giant, the largest breed of chicken, a huge, beautiful bird that shines green in sunlight. One Cuckoo Marans, a splatter of black and white, and a layer of chocolate-brown eggs. And one White-Crested Blue Polish, a bird with a top hat.

Though I haven't figured out names for each of them yet, I've figured out one. That Blue Polish, her name is Harriet.


pam said...

What a wonderful story.

Elizabeth Chase said...

I am in love with this post.

Christina, I'm so sorry about the loss of your grandmother. I'm really looking forward to reading more about her.


NerdMom said...

I am so sorry for your loss. It is always amazing to see how the highs and lows can be knot together for a full life.

Sarah said...

Enjoy the chickens! How old are they? Your coop looks so *clean* .. don't worry, that won't last long. :)

Sarah said...

BTW, our chickens are named after our grandmothers too. Madeleine, Barbara, Phoebe, and Gladys.

Cheyenne said...

Oh, what a lovely ending to a bittersweet story. I'm hoping to add some chickens to our mix next year- I think the naming is a great honor- hopefully Harriet would have agreed.

Lucy said...


Sad, joyous and absolutely wonderful.

Christina said...

Pam: Thank you. I appreciate it.

E-beth: Thanks! You'll get to meet the chooks soon.

Nerdmom: Thank you. Life is a wonderful adventure.

Sarah: Two are three months and one is four months, and I can't remember which is which. I think the Polish is the most physically mature though. I love that each of your chickens is named after a grandmother. That's a great idea.

Cheyenne: I think Harriet (my grandmother) would get a kick out of Harriet (my chicken). They're both funny creatures.

Lucy: Thank you. And, as a reminder, you're pretty darned wonderful yourself.

Another Outspoken Female: I was using my iPod and accidentally (on the wickedly small screen that my big fingers have a hard time maneuvering) hit reject instead of publish on your comment. I'm sorry. Thank you kindly for your sweet words. I appreciate you.

Susan C said...

This story beautifully chronicles the highs and lows of your wonderful life.

I hope Harriet and the other hens will be happy in their new home.

June said...

A granddaughter who loves books and a hen named Harriet: quite a beautiful legacy. I'm so sorry for your loss but happy knowing your life is now full of chickens.

Laura said...

I adore this post! I've been searching through some local blogs as I am new to the blog world, and I'm so glad to have come across yours. My thoughts go to you and your family on the loss of your dear grandmother... take peace that her love of word and books still burns brightly within you. I look forward to reading more of your posts!


ann said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother! And here you are worrying about me. Oy vey! I'm so glad that in the midst of all this you found such a worthy way of celebrating a well-lived life. Good luck with the chickens! I hear caring for them is a lot of fun :-)

Unknown said...

Grandmother and grandchild discussing a common interest are exactly the same age-Duane Birch.

Harriet would be well-pleased.

I cried a bit...

Fantastic post. I look forward to knowing more about your grandmother. After I stop by your place, I am always greatful for doing so.

Christina said...

Susan C: Thank you. They seem happy. They swarm me when I arrive bearing chard or purslane from the garden; I hope I can keep them this healthy and entertained!

June: Thank you for your kind words.

Laura: Why, thank you! I hope to continue to see you around here.

Ann: Thanks, lady. We named the other two Biggie and Smalls. I thought you'd enjoy their names.

Mel: Thank you so much for the wisdom and the kind words. You made my day.

Cafe Pasadena said...

Entertaining, wunderful post! Somehow you tied all these subjects together.

And just when you thought you've seened all the "kooky" women, you find another!

When this K9 retires, maybe that will be a spot for me to ck out.

Good work.

AJK said...

Wow, what a life! I'm very sorry about the loss of your Grandmother. That Rancher lady adventure was something! You'll have to let me know where she is, when I'm ready to buy pullets I'd like to visit her.