I never liked chickens. I do have fond memories of waking up to crowing roosters at my grandparents’ house in Sheridan, Wyoming. Grandpa had many roosters, all in separate wire-framed pens. They strutted around their confines, parading brilliant iridescent plumes. Proud, even in confinement. Defiant. Throwing back their delicate combed heads, opening wide their orange beaks and belting out a challenge to the sun, long before its rising.
Even now, fifty years later, people remember Grandpa’s chickens. I stopped by the old place with two cousins to reminisce last summer. The current owner agreed to let us walk around the yard and relive our memories. Though she had never met my grandfather, she immediately recalled with a raised eyebrow, “Ah, yes, he was the one with the roosters.” Yes. Also known as fighting cocks. A gruesome sport, cock fighting was every bit as illegal then as it is today, and that’s why people remember grandpa fifty years later. All I remember were the large trophies and pre-dawn crowing.
Grandpa had nicer chickens, too. Hens. Basket in hand, we kids were dispatched to the coop to gather eggs on summer mornings. Funny thing about hens — they really aren’t that nice. Turns out they don’t relinquish their precious eggs without a great deal of squawking and flapping and fluttering. To my everlasting relief, my egg gathering days ended when grandpa stepped out of the coop one morning with a writhing black snake, plucked from its hiding place in the straw. From that day forward, we could all pretend I was afraid of snakes, not chickens.
Mama, on the other hand, loved chickens. She, too, grew up to rooster crows, and thus she never met a rooster who didn’t remind her of the father she adored. One might best describe her kitchen decor as Early American Chicken. Giant, cinematic ceramic roosters. Hen and chicks butter dish. Cast iron rooster trivets. Delicate egg cup with hand-painted hen. Collection of fine china mugs with hand-painted roosters. We inventoried them all — these to the auction, these to be packed — while Mama directed from her easy chair. Having just lost her husband of 56 years, she faced a severe downsizing in her pending move to an apartment.
When the rooster cup collection came to the block, she implored us, “Not my rooster cups. Please.” They were small enough to be spared, and a year later they moved again from her apartment to my house, with Mama. My home decor is decidedly NOT Early American Chicken; nonetheless, the rooster cups found a home on my kitchen window sill.
Some six years later, Mama would steer her walker around my kitchen island, doing laps. As she passed the rooster cups, she often stopped to exclaim over them. “Oh, my rooster cups! I remember these! They remind me of my daddy.” When the kind nurse had done an assessment, Mama could not name the president, had no idea what month or even season it was, and could not recall how many children she had. She usually knew my name, but on the days she didn’t, she knew I was the lady who took care of her and told people I was her mother. But the chickens? She always remembered them.
A year ago, I held Mama’s hand as she took one final deep breath, exhaled, and slipped through the veil. Oh, how I miss her. Now I find myself stopping in front of that window sill, admiring those rooster cups and remembering the mother I adored.
I picture my own children someday, after my funeral, facing those cups on the window sill. “Who wants the chickens?” they’ll ask. They don’t think they like chickens right now, but just wait. Grief is a trickster, and they may discover an odd affection for chickens after all. I did.