This past weekend, I came across a photo of my Uncle Joe with his bicycle, taken about 1925 when he would have been ten. The glimpse of the old garage at my grandmother’s house reminded me of the henhouse out behind it. And the story Joe liked to tell about the time he was left in charge of his mother’s chickens.
There was a hen house out back, so of course Ma thought it made perfect sense to keep hens. There would be eggs aplenty and chickens for Sunday dinners. Mr. Litchfield the neighbor next door on White Street kept all kinds of poultry—not just chickens, but geese and ducks. Ma consulted with him and started out small and simple with a few hens of a commonplace variety, perhaps Rhode Island Reds. Soon the chickens were laying and Ma decided to expand her brood; of course having eggs that would hatch meant acquiring a rooster. That was fine with her. Everyone needed to be up early anyway. No need to be intimidated by a little bit of cock-a-doodle-dooing. Eventually, at Mr. Litchfield’s urging, Ma also decided to introduce a duck to the hen house.
The duck, needless to say, was a bird of an entirely different feather, as far as the children were concerned. The duck didn’t just peck at the feed sprinkled on the ground and retreat to the shade of the hen house. No, indeed. The duck waddled all over the yard. He walked up to people and made eye contact; he followed the children around, clucking at their heels. The duck had personality. She was entertaining. And fun. They decided to give her a name. They called her Maisy. Well, Ma, with her own interests and concerns, somehow never noticed that her children considered Maisy more than just another barnyard bird. There came a weekend when Ma, going about her usual Sunday dinner preparations, decided it made sense, at this point, for the duck to go into the roasting pan instead of one of a smaller chicken. After all, the duck was old enough to cook, and quite plump compared to even her plumpest chicken. Plus, as it turned out, nobody seemed to be particularly fond of the duck’s eggs.
Once dinnertime came and all the family was gathered around the table, Ma proudly marched out of the kitchen with her beautifully browned roast duck on a platter, which she set down in front of Pa. But before Pa could even start carving, one of the children, piped up in alarm, “Hey, there’s something funny-looking about that chicken.” Pa said nothing, but proceeded to remove the drumsticks and wings from the bird. Ma, suddenly alert to potential trouble, remained uncharacteristically silent. Then another voice chimed in, “Yeah, that chicken is kind of long and skinny.” It was most likely George who put two and two together, finally, saying, “Actually, that chicken looks like a duck.” By now each plate was heaped with mashed potatoes and green beans. The plates were being passed down to Pa one by one and he was placing a serving of piping hot roast duck (!) on each plate. Silence fell on the table as this ritual continued and all plates were full.
But before anyone could lift a fork, Joe turned to his mother accusingly, incredulously, “Ma! You didn’t cook Maisy?”
Never a woman lacking in bravado, Ma was both matter-of-fact and defiant, as well as willfully ignorant, “Maisy?” She feigned puzzlement.
“Our duck!” said Mary.
“Duck?” Ma’s voice was a little less certain, with six pairs of hazel eyes all bearing down on her. But she quickly regrouped, her voice brisk and businesslike, “Well, of course I cooked the duck. It was just the right size. If I waited too long, it would have gotten too old and tough.”
All eyes shifted to the plates in front of them. One by one the forks that had been lifted were laid back down on the table. Margaret and Mary started to cry silently, tears sliding down their cheeks. Even Pa laid down his fork, his appetite, too, was gone.
Ma scanned the table, surveying the scene, “Now, this is ridiculous,” she said. “I’ve cooked this duck, and I expect all of you to eat it.” She picked up her own fork and knife, cut herself a piece of duck, put it in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “It’s delicious,” she announced. “It tastes better than chicken!”
The children all glared at her with hooded eyes. Her husband regarded her forlornly from his place at the opposite end of the table.
“Now, Phil,” she said to him calmly, as though the children could not hear her. “You’re not helping matters. You just try it. You’ll see how tasty it is.” Pa tried to comply. He wanted to please her. He always liked it when his wife was jolly and happy. He picked up his fork and knife gamely, cut himself a morsel of meat, got it halfway to his mouth, looked at it for a moment, then placed the fork back down on his plate and looked at Ma helplessly.
The children were all staring into their laps. There was silence…. for interminable moments. Then, “I’m not hungry,” declared Joe. “Me, neither,” said Mary. “May I be excused?” requested George.
Ma waved her hand somewhat angrily, in dismissal—and defeat. “Oh, go along. All of you. You’re all excused. You’ll get no dinner today.” With that she stood up and began to clear the table. The girls got up to help, as was their duty. The dishes were done without the usual kitchen chatter. There was nothing to be said. And no one ever reported how, exactly, the uneaten duck was disposed of.
Maisy was long forgotten when the day came for Ma and Pa to leave for their annual trip to Canada. The two had been married in northern Vermont, the little town where his mother came from. Visiting family and friends from the early years of their marriage was a pilgrimage that Ma and Pa always enjoyed. On this particular trip, they would take John and Philip with them, leaving the older four children home. Each one had a job to do. Joe, age ten or twelve by now, was assigned to feed and water the chickens.
Things went along quite well for the two weeks or so that Ma and Pa were gone. Mary and Margaret were perfectly capable of getting meals together and keeping the kitchen in order. It was summertime so there were no worries about shoveling coal for the furnace; and George knew how to keep his eye on the pilot light in the hot water heater and relight it if it went out. Plus, he had his job at the A&P, so he could bring home any supplies the girls might need. Joe was pretty much on his own, but keeping up with his friends kept him plenty busy. He had a new bicycle and spent many afternoons cycling all over town with his buddies.
When Pa and Ma and the younger boys arrived home there were hugs all around. The older children were proud of having taken care of themselves, but also relieved that they were no longer on their own. There was news to be shared—what had happened on the trip, what had happened at home. All was a happy babble until Ma looked at Joe and asked, “And how are the chickens?”
Joe’s mouth fell open, a look of shock and consternation took over his face, quickly to be replaced by dread.
“Well, we’ll have to go see,” Pa said calmly. The henhouse was behind the garage, but Pa had built an outdoor run by tacking chicken wire onto a frame of two-by-fours, so the hens could travel back and forth between the two structures, and had plenty of space to roam, indoors or out, protected from hawks and foxes. It was quicker to get to the henhouse by walking through the garage than around it. Pa walked deliberately to the garage doors. Reluctantly, Joe trailed along. The rest of the family followed at a distance. As soon as Pa swung one of the doors, it was evident to the nose before the eyes even took in the scene that things had not gone well for the chickens while Ma and Pa were away. There, strewn across the garage floor in various contorted angles of repose, were all of Ma’s chickens, feet in the air, dead as doornails.
“I hadn’t given them a single thought,” Joe admitted years later, “from the time Ma and Pa left until they got back.”
And so Ma’s poultry enterprise came to a sad and sudden end. Temporarily. For quite a while afterwards, chickens and eggs were purchased at the store. But eventually, Ma deemed Joe’s sense of responsibility grown sufficiently and he was once more entrusted with care of a new batch of hens.