Warning: Animals and children were harmed in the making of this story.
Early in my pregnancy, my mother—who was actually a very good mother if you overlook all the things she said that have scarred me for life—said something to scar me for life: “I don’t think you will make a very good mother.”
“Mother, why would you say that?” I asked, hoping I sounded indignant instead of wounded.
“You’re not suited for it.”
“Well, you let coyotes eat two of your cats.”
“I didn’t let them,” I said, my voice growing strident. “Cats are nocturnal. They’re hunters. It’s not fair to keep them inside. I promise I won’t let coyotes eat the baby. I won’t leave him unattended in the backyard at night—not during a drought, anyway.”
Mother looked doubtful but moved on.
“Well, you like to read,” she said. “You read even in the daytime. Something will happen to that baby if you don’t change your reading habits.”
I was, by the way, 42 when this conversation took place, 43 when the baby was born.
Eighteen years later, my son, Jake, is a senior at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa. He hasn’t been eaten by coyotes and only suffered a few cuts, scrapes, bruises, and fractures while I was reading. Maybe I was a good mother after all.
Or maybe not. Not if you figure in the chickens.
“Your son is a terrible chicken father,” Jassana said, sounding just like my mother. Jassana is Jake’s partner in their agricultural research class. If Jake is any kind of a chicken father, terrible or not, then that would make Jassana a chicken mother in a squabbly arranged marriage brokered by their teacher, Mike. From the day those chickens came home to roost, they witnessed a lot of bickering.
It was a shotgun wedding. Jake did not want to take ag research. It was not his first choice. It was his last choice. It’s not Jake’s cup of tea. Jake’s cup of tea would be . . . well, actually, a cup of tea. He also likes fashion and baking and Paris, and he’s writing a 20-page senior paper on Lolita.
On the opposite end of his interest spectrum would be anything remotely resembling Mike’s accounting of the first two months of ag research:
Thus far students have researched, designed, and are conducting independent projects, raising meat chickens with maggots, fodder feeding (raising sprouts) as feed for sheep and pigs, and recording humic acid production with worms in different compost mixes.
For a brief time, Jake was animated:
“Mum, did you know you can order two dozen baby chicks and 1,000 maggots with your credit card? They arrive in two days.”
“My credit card?” I asked.
“The school’s,” he said.
“Good,” I said, even though I thought it might be rather fun to claim maggots as a tax deduction. Apparently, you can buy 1,000 for just $11.
That was as excited as Jake ever sounded about the project.
Jake’s earliest experiences with chickens were . . . let’s say Hitchcockian. Claremont, California, where he was born, was once surrounded by orange and lemon groves, but the old packing plant now houses upscale shops and restaurants. The town motto is “City of Trees and PhDs,” owing to the consortium of colleges and street after street lined with stately century-old California oaks. Only two families I know still raise chickens: our former backyard neighbor, and my best friend, Ruth’s, next door neighbor.
From the day we brought him home from the hospital and laid him in his crib, Jake awoke every morning to the sound of cackling. We all did, but the adobe fence was high and thick, and we never saw the backyard chickens.
After a while, we barely noticed.
The next-door-to-Ruth chickens, however, were a different story. Both her yard and Bob’s were only partially fenced, so while Bob’s chickens could not cross the road to get to the other side, they frequently crossed the lot line, chasing and flapping at Jake as if he were Tippi Hedren and they so many starlings and gulls.
“Save me from chickens!” he would cry, and we would save him, although since I was generally in a garden chair under a tree reading when these attacks began, not always before the chickens had him trapped against Ruth’s garage.
Bob attempted to explain dominance to a four-year-old. “You gotta show them who’s boss. They think you’re one of them, Jake. There’s a pecking order, you see, and you’re at the bottom of it.”
Jake was dubious. “Why would the chickens think I’m a chicken?”
“Chickens aren’t very smart, Jake. Don’t run from them. Stand your ground or run into them. Show them you’re top bird.”
But Jake didn’t show them, and so, the chickens continued to do their chicken wing dance around him, pecking and jumping, growing bolder and bolder as he grew older and older.
Jake’s antipathy toward chickens was not replicated with other animals. He liked dogs, horses, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, and kept a pet tarantula for many years. He liked cats, especially. Beginning in kindergarten, Jake wrote, drew, and made speeches about cats. He was a cat for two Halloweens and entered a cat-centric project in the K-1 division of the science fair. Midway through second grade his narrative grade report read:
Strengths: writes well about cats
Needs Improvement: should write about something other than cats
He tried to comply. He wrote about chickens: “I hate chickens. I absolutely hate chickens. I think they make lots of noise. I think they’re scary and devious.”
Yes, he did use the word “devious” in second grade. He spelled it “dvus.”
These days, as he goes off to feed his chickens every day, I hear him mutter. “I hate chickens. I absolutely hate chickens. I like the maggots more than I like the chickens. I can hardly wait until we slaughter the chickens.”
Despite his bad attitude, his first quarter progress report was encouraging:
Jake has been a good student in ag research—stepping out of his comfort zone, and choosing an ambitious project of raising meat chickens with fly larvae, tackling the larger question of how to reduce feed cost and still properly nourish the chickens. A few times the chickens were found without food or water, but Jake and Jassana have spent a good deal of time outside of class keeping their chickens alive, while also raising meal worms and soldier fly larvae. Next they need to figure out how to BREED soldier flies to create more larvae.
I have no idea why “breed” is in all caps, but it calls to mind something Hamlet says to Polonius about the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog. There probably isn’t much overlap between those who know Hamlet well and actual maggot breeders, so I’ve refrained from suggesting to Mike, Jake, or Jassana that what their experiment needs is more sunlight and a dead dog.
We moved from California to North Carolina when Jake was ten, escaping the chickens, but not the bullying. In this new land, the bullies were boys, crueler and more cunning than chickens. It was the fall of Obama’s first election. Jake’s private school staged a mock election. He cast the only vote for Obama. He was the only boy in sixth grade not to own a gun—the only one never to have shot dead a critter of some kind—the only one who still collected Beanie Baby cats and Webkinz—the only one who walked more like his mother than his father.
Ten years earlier when mother told me I wouldn’t make a good mother, it hurt. When Jake was punched and pummeled and mocked and called names by other children, it hurt worse. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t read for almost two years. I made quilts. I taught Jake to make quilts. We now have a lot of quilts.
Jake says now that it wasn’t so bad. No doubt he would have survived high school in North Carolina, but I wasn’t sure his father and I would have. At the time he wanted to be a fashion designer, and we were supportive but not supportive enough to move to Paris as per his wishes. Instead, we moved to Iowa, and that is how he found himself feeding maggots to chickens instead of browsing for je ne sais quoi in Montmartre.
Scattergood students share in the running of the school and the farm. They rotate cooking, cleaning, recycling, landscaping, sowing, reaping, livestock tending, and egg gathering.
“Do you know your son’s afraid of chickens?” The egg crew leader, a farm boy standing before me, three upside-down pullets dangling from each hand, looked perplexed. I wasn’t. My son had nature and nurture working against him. Under the crew leader’s kind and patient tutelage, however, Jake eventually managed to gather an egg or two. He also eventually made good friends, loved his classes, learned to cook in and clean an industrial kitchen, performed in dramas and at coffee houses, ran the senior store, excelled at ultimate frisbee, swam in the pond, went canoeing for a week, and so on and so forth. I must have been a good mother to bring him to this place.
Scattergood kids aren’t perfect, of course. They are teenagers and, as such, they always want something. “Would you take us to Pink Pony for ice cream, Jane?” Five hopeful adolescent faces, Jake’s included, smiled into mine.
“Sure,” I said. Pink Pony is only a couple miles away. It’s an easy gig, and then I get to go home a hero.
“Can you just wait a minute for me to do something with a dead chicken?” Jake asked.
“A dead chicken? Did you say ‘a dead chicken’? What happened?”
“It doesn’t concern you, Mother,” he said, all traces of the please-take-us-for-ice-cream sweetness gone from his voice. “Just wait.”
Three girls witnessing the exchange could hardly wait to tell me what Jake would not.
“He forgot to feed or water the chickens,” they said. “And one of them died. A couple weeks ago, he let the heat lamp go out, and two of them died.”
I was stunned. Crestfallen. I wanted to blame Jassana but was wholly without cause or evidence to do so. She was, in fact, in Chicago that week volunteering at a Catholic Worker house. My son, and my son alone, had let chickens starve, dehydrate, and freeze to the point of death. The verdict was in. He was a terrible chicken father, and I was a terrible mother.
But then, over the next couple weeks, the maggot-fed chickens began to outweigh the control group suggesting that Jake and Jassana might be on their way to solving hunger, famine, and food insecurity around the world. I was a good mother.
Or so I thought, until I came across a copy of their lab report on my kitchen counter: barely 200 words with three typos, one dangling modifier, and two fragments. I was a terrible mother. I confronted my son.
“Jassana wrote that. She was in a hurry. Don’t worry, I’m going to fix it,” he said.
My son may be careless with chickens, but his partner is careless with language. So much for her mother.
“Jassana’s mother is lovely, Mum.”
“Wow, did I say that out loud?”
“Yes. Of course, she’s not as lovely as you.” He was grinning. “Would you just relax about the chickens, please? Don’t you have something to read?”
And so it went, the barometer of my maternal confidence rising and falling with the welfare of chickens.
I calmed down, but I didn’t pick up my book. I sat, and I thought. Maybe Jake’s not a bad chicken father. Maybe, just maybe, the chickens are unsuitable children. Maybe it’s unfair to expect him to nurture something which has always been a torment for him. Maybe it’s truly none of my business who or what he chooses to nurture, chooses to love.
It’s all coming to an end anyway.
“We’re going to Ames,” Jake said, handing me a pen and a paper.
“It’s a permission slip. We’re entering our project in the state science fair. You have to sign.”
“Really? That’s great. Mike thinks it’s a good project, huh? The state science fair, huh?” I looked at the paper. “What is this exactly? Why do I need to sign?”
“You’re granting permission for the media to cover us if we win. You know: using our names, taking our pictures, interviews, movie rights.”
Jake was smiling. He looked happy. Maybe I am a good mother. Well, unless I send this out for publication—that’s the sort of thing that might scar a kid for life.