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The Milk House: She gone chicken crazy

Contributed by Ryan Dennis Published on 05 February 2016

Before, I had thought mid-life crises had to look like this: You get a Mustang or a younger partner, maybe change your job or get a new haircut or hike through a remote mountain chain. Maybe you take up tango or change your name to Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of love and beauty, and then force everyone to call you that. My mother, however, did none of that 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 assaulted by a barrage of peeping. I walked in to find the kitchen filled with blue plastic tubs of small chicks, gaping up at me with emotionless eyes and repeating the same bleating note without pause. 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.”

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Everything was different after that. Table space was lost to incubators and egg turners. Chicken decorations took over the shelves and refrigerator. The back room smelled like laying mash. The lawn filled up with chicken tractors and old calf hutches converted to additional fowl housing.

The grass around the house, 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 it in front of one of the chicken tractors. Sometimes she spent hours watching the chickens, who stood there and watched 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 toward 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.”

“My god,” I whispered to myself. “She gone chicken crazy.”

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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 it was all right, 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 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 the Rooster of Death. I used a broom handle to both tap the eggs toward me and shield my face from the claws swiping at it.

After putting one hard-earned egg in the grass next to me 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 the coop 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 over 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 blank eyes unblinking. What followed was an uncomfortable phone call having to relay news of the death.

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“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.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. Your blue chicken is dead.”

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 home to announce that her spiritual animal is a Rhode Island Red?

Part of me lives in fear 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.  PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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