Chickens, or rather hens, spend the vast majority of their lives in one of two characteristic postures. One, a trope of the media and known to all, is wandering around in the dirt, clucking randomly and pecking at the ground. The other, mostly known only to those of us who grew up with them, is settled down — in the dirt, or on the nest — legs tucked under, feathers fluffed out. This is a hen at her most content: taking a dust-bath, or setting on her eggs, waiting for them to hatch.
The summer I turned eight we moved off the farm, into a house with what our neighbors thought was a big yard and I thought tiny. My father had lived more than fifty years on farms, and within a couple of years of moving into town, would find a way to bring the country in with him. Discovering a passion for vegetable gardening he had never shown when we had ten acres of some of the most fertile soil in the world, he ploughed under all but a tiny piece of the yard, trucked in two tons of chicken manure from my uncle's farm, and grew enough vegetables to keep my mom busy canning for weeks in the fall. Eventually, he even built a small coop and started keeping chickens again (hens only, after the threat of a fine for disturbing the peace resulted in our suddenly deciding to have the rooster for dinner one day).
But it took dad a couple of years before he decided to bring farm life into town with him, and that first year in town was radically different for me and mom than all we had known before. Suddenly our mornings were free of all the routine chores that had been, for both of us, as constant a part of our days as breakfast. No chickens to feed, no cow to milk, no eggs to gather. The faint methane smell of cow manure that had always lingered in the air, to be noticed when the wind shifted, was replaced by exhaust fumes, overlain by the salty, rotting smell of the bay at low tide, even though the harbor was almost a half-mile away. No roosters crowing at dawn; no frogs croaking at dusk — but the steam whistle of the mill across the bay would announce lunch time and quitting time every day, punctuated once a month by the always unexpected test of the air-raid siren. All of my life there had been exactly one kid my own age within walking distance, and only four houses within a mile of ours; there were ten kids total in my second grade class, and none lived close enough to school to walk. There were over a hundred kids in third grade at my new school, nearly all of them walked to school, and nine lived within a block of our new house. I met more new people those first few months in town than I had met in my entire life up to then. It was all very strange for me.
My mother never learned to drive, and life on the farm had been terribly isolating for her. But there was a bus stop two blocks from the new house, and she had always been gregarious; soon she was involved in local community groups and had a lot of new friends, and sometimes wasn't home when I got back from school. Not only was I, the eight year old, growing more independent: so was my mom. Yet we were one-another's anchors too: My dad was gone most of the time, working jobs far enough away he'd only come home the occasional weekend. Mom, the cat, and I were the only continuity with one-another's old lives.
The furthest corner of my range that first year in town was the local shopping center. Now I'd call it a strip mall: a big parking lot (or what I thought of then as a big parking lot, anyway) with a drug store, a grocery store, and a what was still in those days called a dime store, all side-by-side. The dime store fascinated me — it had everything from brassieres (which did not then interest me) to rifles (which did) — and they were remarkably tolerant of a well-mannered child wandering around the place, looking at everything but touching little, and that carefully. One day that spring, in a far back corner, I found a brown glass candy dish in the form of a setting hen. The bottom of the dish was little more than a plain glass oval, but with the top on it, it really did look just like a hen settled onto her nest*. Mom was a big, round woman; my sisters, who were in their teens when I was born, often spoke of her as an old mother hen with her brood. If you knew chickens, and you knew my mom, it was an obvious metaphor. Whether I was conscious of that metaphor the spring I turned nine, I don't remember. But I knew as soon as I saw that brown glass chicken that I wanted to give it to my mom. For the next three months, I saved nearly every penny that came into my hands. By the time May rolled around, I doubt there was a single discarded deposit can or bottle within a mile of our house, and my candy consumption was at a record low — but I'd saved enough to buy the glass chicken. I gave it to her for Mothers' Day. It was the first present I ever bought for her; aside from the occasionally pretty rock or flower I found outside when I was little, the first thing I'd ever given to her, or anyone. And aside from the step-stool I made for her in wood shop when I was thirteen, the only gift I gave her that I still remember.
She adored it. I made her smile that day, and the memory of that smile is as happy as any memory in my entire life. It held a place of honor, near my mom's chair, as long as she lived in that house. The next half-dozen or so years were when my mom and I were closest; we would talk, sometimes for hours, about books or history or current events. It was from my mom, ill-educated as she was, that I got my love of intellectual conversation, of wit, of badinage. And through all that time, through all those conversations, there was that candy dish, at her elbow, reminding me no matter how low I got in those hormonal roller-coaster years, no matter how clumsy I felt, that I had once brought her a moment of pure joy — that I had, at least one time in my life, found it in me to do exactly the right thing.
My mother's and my relationship was not without its issues. "You're so smart, sometimes I forget you're a little boy." She said that to me more than once, perhaps in reaction to the deer-in-the-headlights look I must have worn sometimes in response to some revelation I was not emotionally prepared to deal with. One day when I was about ten, after my dad had gone on a particularly violent rampage through the house and mom had made me hide under a pile of old clothes in a closet, I asked for what must have been the hundredth time why she didn't leave him. Only this time she told me the truth: that she had been planning to leave him when my sisters graduated high school, but then I came along, and she didn't see how she could take proper care of a child as a single mother with no salable skills who hadn't held a job in almost thirty years. I was not ready, at age ten, to cope with the idea that my mother got beaten up at random intervals to keep a roof over my head. At about that same time, we were getting our first round of sex education, and my mother decided that I should know that I owed my existence to the unreliability of the diaphragm. Children of alcoholics tend to think that they're to blame for everything that's wrong in their homes anyway; my mother's frankness did nothing to assuage my budding neuroses. I felt like she would be so much better off without me, and lived in terror that she would realize it and just pack up and leave. I don't to this day know whether she was just blithely ignorant of the impact her words would have on me, or on some level taking out her frustrations on me. I suppose it doesn't matter: she may not have wanted me, but once I was there, she did the best by me that she knew how to. What more can we ask of our moms?
The last time I saw her, less than twenty years after that Mothers' Day, almost twenty years ago now, she didn't know who I was. We would have maybe two minutes of conversation, and then she would forget what we were talking about. It was the worst thing I've ever seen.
There are no words... no words at all... for how much I miss her.
* The internet really does know all: There's a web site for collectors of nesting-hen glassware. Nothing on that page quite matches my memory, though.