My previous articles describing my life experiences on the ranch have all included an underlying humorous tone. This next encounter is much more somber than the others, and although there may still be some humor, it will remain to this day as one of the worst days and times of my life.
It all began in early April when I got a call from the local post office informing me that I had a package to pick up and that it was perishable and to come as soon as possible. My thought was if I must come that urgently, whatever it is has probably already perished. However, I’m a glutton for punishment, so I put my hair up in a ponytail, threw on my baseball cap, slipped on my old reliable black yoga pants, and trucked on down to the post office.
The not-so-friendly lady working behind the counter had an unexpected and rare smile on her face, which made me very suspicious. I told her I was there to pick up the package they had just called about. She smiled and slowly turned around and went to an area in the back that I thought was reserved for all the lost, stolen, and missing mail. She reappeared holding a medium-sized box that had unrecognizable sounds coming from it. As she walked closer to me, it became more obvious what the sounds were. It was right then and there that I began to have a true blackout experience. I often say I am blacking out on the ranch, which really means I am trying to avoid ever recalling what was currently happening at the time, but this was an actual blackout experience. The room started narrowing in on me with darkness circling all around. All I could hear was a constant peeping sound as the clerk approached me and sat down an unmarked brown box with round holes in it.
It was still difficult to see, but I was able to make out some yellow furballs frantically moving around within the tightly enclosed area. As I peered in, the box scooted closer to me on its own as if the little buggers were saying, “Are you, my mama?” Oh, my Lord, no, I answered in my mind. This can’t be, which is what I quickly and confidently explained to the clerk. There must be some mistake. First, who ships live animals through the postal service? Is this even legal? Where the heck is PETA now? Secondly, we don’t have or need any more animals let alone chickens. I prefer Eggland’s Best from our local grocery store and had no interest in taking more time to check chicken butts daily.
As the line behind me continued to grow and wrap around like I was at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland, the clerk impatiently asked me if there was anything else I needed. My only thought was yeah actually, how about a one-way plane ticket somewhere tropical? Or, at this point, it doesn’t even have to be tropical just get me out of here.
My first instinct was not to bring them home. I knew that this would mean they would then be part of the family, but my only other option was to leave them somewhere on the side of the road with a sign saying: will produce eggs to a good home. At the time, it didn’t sound like a great option either.
I slowly and sadly grabbed the box, turned around, and headed to my vehicle. My phone call to my husband was not pleasant. “Seriously, why, why, why do we need chickens now?” “It will be good,” he replied with a little chuckle. “I have a little tank in the shop set up for them with a heat lamp and food and water. Bring them home.” All I could think of at the time was how sick my mother was from cancer and how emotionally exhausting It was seeing her suffer. So, while I tried to take the burdens of her and my father’s pain away, the last thing I had was time or energy to care for anything else.
As I sat in my vehicle with tears running down my face, my motherly instincts kicked in and the constant chirping began plucking at my heartstrings, so I decided to bring them home. My youngest daughter and husband were waiting for me at the shop with smiles bigger than a new moon.
We opened the box to discover many of the little creatures really had perished. I immediately went into defensive mode and screamed, “Why in the hell does anyone ship live animals in the mail?” I guess it shows the God-given selfless love that a mother has for her babies and all babies she has contact with. How could my strong discord for them turn into instant attachment so quickly? I continued ranting on, “For goodness sakes, they have been ripped away from their mothers and shoved in a tightly packed box unable to move or breathe for days.” Maybe, I was being overly sensitive at the time, with the current situation, but it seemed so inhumane. With tears in my daughter’s eyes, we picked out the live ones and put them under the heat lamp in the small, galvanized water tank. They seemed overjoyed in their new temporary home, which brought a smile to us all.
I quickly explained to my husband that I will not be checking for eggs or eating any eggs they lay. He sarcastically answered that is good news because these chickens don’t lay eggs. My eyes got very large with a very perplexed looked. Ok, chickens that DON’T lay eggs, now I’ve heard everything. So, they truly are pointless? “Why do we have chickens that don’t lay eggs?” I asked angrily. “These chickens are fryers, not layers,” he answered. A million thoughts were racing through my mind, but the most obvious one was, so, are they all boys or what? He further explained we would raise them to butcher them. Oh, great I thought. What a wonderful concept to teach a child. Here, get close to the cute little chicks. Play with them, hold them, talk to them, and bond with them so that we can stick their neck on a log between two nails and chop their heads off. How in the world do you explain that to a 6-year-old little girl or anyone for that matter?
The next few months became a blur. I honestly don’t remember much of the chickens from this point forward as my mother took up most of my days. She progressively became sicker and through the summer months needed more care. Off and on my husband reminded me that chickens needed to be butchered because they were getting too big to even carry themselves around. The very last thing in the world I cared about during that time was chickens, so I didn’t pay much attention to them.
I wish I could say this story has a happy ending, but unfortunately, it does not. After my sister and I could no longer care for my mother at home, she went into hospice for the last couple of weeks of her life on earth. She died on Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. August 28, 2012. Almost 10 years ago seems like yesterday because I remember every detail so vividly, and yet, it seems like a lifetime without sharing every one of our life’s events with her and hearing her voice. We put her to rest on Friday, which was the toughest day of my life thus far.
What did that mean for our family moving forward? Well, when you live on a ranch, it means, put your big girl panties on and let’s go! Life goes on. There is work to do and the best way to get over heartache is to stay busy, so you don’t think about it. That concept sucks and I don’t recommend it for anyone. However, that is exactly what we did. The next morning my husband set up for the butchering of the chickens! As I am writing this, it still is hard to believe, but that’s exactly how it happened.
My six-year-old daughter who just attended her grandmother’s funeral the day prior had an ax in her hand and was chopping off chicken heads. Barbaric you say? Yes, 1000%! I watched the scene from my kitchen window while washing and putting chicken parts in Ziplock bags. Talk about a blackout! It felt like a daze. What it does do is make you tough. I’m not sure if it makes you stronger, but it makes you tougher. Ranch life is not for the fainthearted. All of today’s sayings in life come from the ol’ timers who lived through tough ranch life. Our lives today do not compare to how difficult each day was for the true homesteaders, but it gives a glimpse of light on how hard life really was. There is one saying that always gets used in our family, which is, get tough or die. That day I wanted to die but getting tougher was the option I chose. To end on a positive note, I was able to answer the million-dollar question from my experience with chickens. The chicken definitely comes before the egg!