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Rated: NPL · Column · Family · #1865894
Originally from Warm Welcome mag, rewritten for the Pittsburgh Trib Review May, 1999

The Chicken Lady

By Dana Datko

My father was a country boy who married a girl so citified she believed chickens had four legs - apparently she never caught on to Grandma's habit of adding extra drumsticks to the roaster.

As a result of this unlikely pairing, I grew up in a perfectly balanced world: Sunday manners and croquet at my city grandmother's home, mud-caked sneakers and swimming in the stream at my country grandmother's cottage. I enjoyed both worlds, but the bucolic side of my family beckoned to me like a bull to a lovesick heifer. As soon as I learned to ride a two-wheeler, I began scouring my neighborhood, searching for signs of country in the city.

I explored every square foot of the large, wooded city park, my pockets stuffed with stale bread for squirrels, ducks, and swans. I braved a busy avenue near my home to visit a horse living in a backstreet shed. But I hit the rural jackpot with the discovery of the Chicken Lady.

I never learned her proper name. She clung to a remnant of an old farm that had been nearly choked out by urban sprawl. Her farmhouse and dirt yard survived behind a wall of tangled shrubs in the alley beside my elementary school. When I stood up on my bike pedals and cruised the length of her hedge, I glimpsed a hodgepodge of sheds, coops, fruit trees and vegetable patches. Best of all were her real, live farm animals - goats, dogs, kittens, ducks and chickens. She was, forever after, the Chicken Lady.

The discovery of Chicken Lady solved a dilemma my mother faced every year - how to dispose of the live Easter chicks my sister, Carol, and I raised in the basement behind the wringer washer.

At our house, bargaining for Easter peeps or ducklings was a spring event. Mom was strong-willed, but we knew how to manipulate her. While Easter shopping, we merely slowed Mom down near Woolworth's big front window. One look at the pastel-tinted sea of fluffy babies surging behind the glass melted her resolve like a butter pat on a roasting turkey.

The last batch of Easter chicks was memorable. Carol and I fussed over them and stuffed them with feed. They flourished. Tiny blue fuzzballs grew up overnight into a white, sleek, squawking flock that clamored at the basement door.

Our big tomcat, Yellow Kitty, took to lurking around the cellar door, nonchalantly washing his face, as if he wasn't really plotting a raucous, bloody feather-fest.

When Mom began complaining about the mess the half-grown birds made, we knew her spate of chicken compassion had ended. "Take them to the Chicken Lady, she'll love them," she said. We knew better than to argue when Mom's eyebrows looked like that.

The Chicken Lady and her husband were delighted with our beautiful, plump pets. Their thank-you's wafted after us as we skipped back home, where we fairly bubbled over with the good will and expansive spirit of our selfless sacrifice.

"You did the right thing, girls," Mom said, giddy with victory. "Your chickens will have a good home."

Several weeks passed. As the littlest kid in the neighborhood, I seemed always to be left behind. Bored, I stuffed a dressed up and hostile Yellow Kitty into my doll buggy and wheeled the ugly, grumpy baby up and down the street.

"Go visit the Chicken Lady. See how the chicks are doing," Mom suggested, as eager to get rid of me as the cat was.

I insisted Carol come along to break the ice, as she was four years older and had once been invited into the Chicken Lady's house to watch Liberace on television.

The Chicken Lady's face brightened when she saw us at her kitchen door. I jabbed Carol in the back, and she blurted out, "We came to see our chickens."

The Chicken Lady's husband appeared. "Hi, girls," he said with a grin. Wonderful cooking aromas surrounded the couple.

"Well, can we see them?" The Chicken Lady wrung her apron into a knot. She nudged her husband. "They come to see their chickens," she said.

He frowned. "You mean them beautiful roosters you gave us?" Roosters? What did town kids know about boy or girl chickens?

"Oh honey," moaned the Chicken Lady. "We et 'em!"

Struck dumb, we took off at a trot across the alley. Visions of our floured Easter chicks frying in a big skillet full of lard hit me about mid-schoolyard, and I started blubbering. We screamed for our cat to come along, lest he be devoured by the Chicken Lady, too. Soon, we were babbling the whole story to our mother. "Wait," she said. "Tell this to Daddy."

Just home from the office, still dressed in his suit and tie, our father listened intently. Dad was a kind man, but not one to show his emotions; I was more shocked by his reaction than by the Chicken Lady's murderous confession.

He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away. His broad back quivered. In a minute, he seemed composed and cleared his throat, "Now, what did the Chicken Lady say again?" Carol and I wailed the awful words. Up went the handkerchief.

Finally, struggling to keep his voice steady, he sat down at the dining room table and tried to explain the food chain to two little girls who had never, ever eaten an animal they had known intimately.

As time passed, the Chicken Lady loomed slightly less malevolent. After all, if, as Daddy explained, Grandma had raised and killed chickens to help feed her family, and my uncles raised sheep and cattle to support their families, maybe the Chicken Lady wasn't so terrible.

My rosy image of country life - smiling farmers tossing hay to cuddly farm animals - was forever altered. Many nights Carol and I would ponder over the mystery of it all as we drifted off to sleep in the front bedroom, where every morning we were awakened by the crows of one of the Chicken Lady's reprieved roosters. We accepted life's harsh realities and vowed never again to become fond of any animal that might end up on a platter in the middle of the dining room table.

But we could never speak of it in front of our dad. He'd laugh until he cried.

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