She Gone Chicken Crazy
By Ryan Dennis
Before I had thought that midlife crises had to look like this: you get a Mustang or a younger partner. Maybe you quit your job or get a new haircut or hike through a remote mountain chain. Perhaps you take up tango or change your name to Cleopatra and then force everyone to call you that. My mother, however, did none of these things in her middle years.
I’m not sure how it started, other than one day they were simply there. I came home from university, opened the door, and was engulfed by peeping. I walked in to find the kitchen filled with blue plastic tubs of small chicks gaping up at me with emotionless eyes, repeating the same bleating note. I think I was stunned, but it was too loud to hear myself think. My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, as if announcing a diagnosis: “Your mother has chickens now.”
Everything was different after that. Table space was lost to incubators and egg turners. Chicken decorations took over the shelves and refrigerator. The backroom smelled like laying mash. The yard filled up with chicken tractors and old calf hutches that were converted to additional fowl housing. The lawn, although never beautiful, now had bare spots where the chicken tractors had been moved every week to provide fresh ground for the birds. My mother, instead of reading or visiting other people in the summer, took a lawn chair and placed in front of one of the chicken tractors. Sometimes she spent hours watching the chickens, who did nothing but stand there and watch her back.
Some groups of chickens couldn’t mix—I’ll admit, I never understood the complex sociology of it all—and so the birds that got to roam free for the day were rotated. For all the space they had, they always seemed to gravitate towards the porch. Once I complained about the continual presence of chicken feces on the concrete in front of the door, pointing out how unfortunate it would appear to any potential visitors. Her response was frank and unhesitating. “It’s called life, Son. Get over it.”
Last summer my parents went on vacation. I was home at the time, and entrusted with the task of keeping the place running—including the chicken operation. I had to feed and water them, collect the eggs, watch out for any sick ones and administer mash with antibiotics as necessary. I was told that it was alright, maybe even expected, that a chick might die during my mother’s time away. One had to acknowledge sheer mathematical probability. I was reluctantly assured that she could live with that, as long as it wasn’t one of her blue chicks, which were apparently her pride and joy.
After a lifetime of cattle chores I had reasoned that chickens, being smaller, must be easier to tend to. I did not account for the fact, however, that I would have to collect eggs from a coop that housed an angry rooster with the skills of Rambo. I used a broom handle to both tap the eggs towards me and shield my face from the claws swiping at it. After putting one hard-earned egg in the grass and leaning in to risk my well-being and good looks for the next one, I was dismayed to find it gone when I came out of the coop again. I searched thoroughly, both the lawn around me and my own self-awareness to decide if I had already gone crazy after one day of chicken rearing. The mystery was solved, nonetheless, when the dog passed by on his lap around the house with the egg in his mouth, tossing it in the air and ultimately rolling on it until it broke over his coat.
Still, the worst part would not occur until my gravest fears had come to fruition. On Day Three of chicken chores I opened up one of the tractors to find a blue chick in the corner, its eyes unblinking. What followed was an uncomfortable phone call having to relay news of the death.
“Was it a blue one?”
“It was a blue one.”
“Don’t say it was a blue one.”
“It was a blue one.”
“You’re a bad son.”
It’s been a few years, and to be honest, I don’t know how this one is going to end. What is Nirvana for a chicken lady? How many incubators are enough? Will she join a cult with other chicken people, or, by owning chickens (and I gulp) is she already in one? Will a shaman visit the house to announce that her spiritual animal is a Rhode Island Red? Part of me lives in fear that I will call home someday to hear that I can no longer come back because my old room is filled with blue plastic tubs and bags of mash. If I were a more successful son I would buy her a Mustang or a plane ticket to the Alps, but I doubt they would dampen her enthusiasm for her birds. As far as I know, there are no support groups or books on how to help family members who have developed a case of Chicken Crazy. To date, the closest thing I’ve found are many recipes for omelets on the internet, and space in front of the coop for another lawn chair.
If you’d like to read more Moonwalking on Tailgates email Ryan at RyanDennis@themilkhouse.org.