Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Chickens of Her Youth

The shed outside my wife's family home
I am standing in a bowling alley talking to my future wife. We are not dating; this is, in fact, our first real conversation. The lighting is poor, dim yet spastic in only the way lighting can be when its primary source is hundreds of blinking multicolored lights spelling “Spare!” “Strike!” and “Gutter ball!” My future wife and I are not bowling and stand the appropriate “this is the first real conversation between two young people who obviously want to be more than friends” space apart.

Grease is running down my hand. This is because I have been handling a partially eaten slice of pizza for 20 minutes. Friends of ours, some of whom are actually bowling (imagine that!), stand in clusters about the alley. Most of them are making short work of their slices. Some are eyeing us as if we were an exhibit featuring rare, never-before-seen zoo animals. Maybe this is because none of them has ever seen either of us conversing with the opposite sex before.

There are peppers mixed in with the pizza cheese, along with other less identifiable things and small pieces of BBQ chicken. Seems a perfectly reasonable if not random selection of toppings, although I did not play a part in ordering them. I’m not even hungry. Not really. I was just looking for an excuse to keep hanging out. And strike up a conversation with a pretty girl.

Grease is running down my future wife’s hand, well after she is through eating. Like me, she is afraid to scuttle off to the restroom, afraid to disrupt whatever perilously delicate balance we have struck, afraid that if she leaves this will be the first and last real conversation between us. And so we stand. Greasy-handed. The appropriate distance away. Talking.

Naturally, the conversation veers toward . . . chickens?

My future wife begins a story of how she was once a younger person. This seems preposterous to me since until recently I had no idea she existed in the first place. Now she is telling me she had a childhood, too? Amazing. But this strays a bit from the point.

Little middle-school-aged future wife, whom I imagine to be all scrawny limbs, knees, and elbows (photos viewed years later would prove me correct on this account), grew up in a Connecticut farmhouse built in 1777 by colonial shipbuilders. The floorboards of this house, in which her parents still reside, are occasionally 40 feet long and 20 inches wide and are separated by small ropes inserted between the wooden planks, presumably for expansion and contraction purposes. So far her story checks out, as this all seems very nautical to me.

Once a part of the Slaughter Hill farm, my future wife’s house over the years became surrounded by woods—acres of second-growth trees, acreage that is now being picked away at on all sides by encroaching subdivisions. But when she was a girl, the woods remained wild enough. My future wife’s family fought hard to garden, but nature fought back just as fiercely. Plantings were devoured by rabbits, deer, and groundhogs. They sprouted, flowered, and were promptly eaten just as they were about to mature into honest-to-goodness vegetables. To this day a row of pine tree–like shrubs that extend some 20 feet into the air at the foot of their driveway have meticulously cropped lower portions exactly to the height of an adult deer. Guests often ask about the plant “sculptures.” Future wife’s parents sigh and insist their pruners work for very cheap.

The "Edward Scissorhands" trees
Having little success in gardening, the family turned toward modest animal husbandry—chickens, to be specific—and future wife and her younger sister soon had themselves a small brood of clucking hens named such decidedly dorky names as Athena, Han Solo, and Ariel.

Here a bright light shines in my future wife’s eyes. Here is a particularly fond memory, one she probably had no idea she’d be telling some random stranger in a poorly lit bowling alley while grease ran down her fingers. Yet that is the way these things work.

One of the chickens, named Peep, began to greet my future wife each afternoon at the end of their long driveway, where the bus would drop her off. Young-person future wife, her back schlumped under one of those fit-to-bursting backpacks under which children hobble around, would look up and smile as a small cloud of dust formed near her house. Gradually, an animal could be made out, tearing down the drive at top speed, its feather-duster feet kicking up grit and dirt as it made its way to its long-lost owner. Other children are met by dogs, Calvin was met by his pet tiger Hobbes, but my future wife was met by her tiny chicken Peep.
Athena, Peep and Han Solo

She is bashful in telling this story, even though she can see it is successful enough. I am smiling and nodding and laughing at all the right moments. I tell stories, too, though none feature chickens, and of course we discuss our majors, favorite classes, least favorite professors, the way the wind in Chicago can blow from all four cardinal points simultaneously, in complete refutation of the laws of physics.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that the chicken so prominently featured in our first real conversation had some “enticement” to make the long jog down the driveway. It seems my future wife would save a tiny bit of bread from her sandwich in her coat pocket and feed the loyal bird, rewarding it for its obedience and steadfast character. I also learned, sadly, that just as future wife’s family’s “crops” were plagued by scavengers, so too were the chickens. An inexperienced bunch of émigrés from Boston and Chicago deciding to raise a brood of chickens on a wooded hill in Connecticut? You may as well ring the dinner bell for owls, stoats, foxes, weasels, you name it.

(Chicken lovers, please understand this family loved its chickens dearly and did everything in their power to care for them.)

This is the way nature works, the pragmatist in me thinks. My future wife’s family eventually moved on and acquired a pair of beautiful long-haired indoor cats who would fare a bit better.
However, to this day, when my wife and I make our way down deserted country roads, pull into the odd potter’s studio, and are greeted by a half dozen hens, I can see that flash of light in her eyes. She is that young person again, anxious over homework and unpopularity in the halls, but all of this washes away as her Peep comes running.

— Douglas Riggs, Social Media Administrator


Mimi Foxmorton said...

I have not seen anything more beautiful than your garden shed in a very long time. It was open on my computer and everyone at work died for it. You have inspired a lot of people this day!

Have a lovely one.

Anonymous said...


It was just over the rise from that shed that my wife and I made our vows. It was October and all the trees were turning. We lucked out, it was 60 degrees and mostly sunny. October in New England can be... how should I put this... unpredictable?