One of the Queen of hearts little playing card soldiers was pulling at my foot. He was the size of an actual playing card but with a great big normal sized hand on my foot. “Pitou.” he shouted and pulled. “Pitou, Pitou,” I opened my eyes to see Aunt Chin pulling my toe trying to wake me up.
“I fell asleep,” groggily I explained, blinking.
“I see that.”
A thought suddenly roused my mind… “Did you kill the chickens?” I blurted out.
“No Pierre, I tole you I wouldn’t do that. B’sydes you only been sleeping for a few minutes.” She used my full given name instead of Pitou, which made me feel like maybe she was finding my chicken commotion a bit tiresome. That being the case or not, I resolved to quit making a big deal out of it. Plus I was half asleep so some of, …well…actually a lot of the anxiety was gone, even though I had just dreamt about it.
I sat up rubbing my face. “C’mon bebe,” she beckoned, “I could use your help hanging out the laundry.”
I was slow to wake and my mind was all over the place. “Are the pies finished?” I asked trying to picture the finished peach pie with the lemon.
“Yes they are, and coolin on the table.”
I looked in the direction of the kitchen and yawned. “Can I keep my peacock fan?” I asked
“Yes, sweet.” Chin was giggling at me again, “I gave that to you.”
Her giggling made me feel better and more awake. I hopped off the couch and started to follow her lead to the laundry room. At the steps down to the garage room I stopped and sat to stretch a minute, while Chin took out the wash and put it into a the large wicker basket.
“You wanna stretch?” Chin asked. I nodded “Her (here) cher, this is somthin my PaPA used to do for me when I was juss woke up.” She took me by the wrists and held me up high as she could, hanging from my wrists. “Now, juss hang loose and get all the stretching out.” Which I did and it felt great. I wish I had a giant person around now as an adult to hang me by my wrists when I can’t seem to stretch enough upon awakening.
After the hanging, (I ponder now what chiropractors might say about this treatment, is it good for the spine or bad for the wrists) Chin went to the big basket, hoisted it up, and I followed her out the garage/basement/laundry room door to the side of the house where there was a clothesline. It took a while for us to shake out the sheets and table clothes and hang them on the line. I also was handing her clothes pins. When we were done she asked me if I wanted to play “laundry tag.”
“I don’t know. I guess.” I had no idea what this game was.
Chin explained, “Well, I will go to the end of the line her and close my eyes and count to ten. You have to hide somewhere in the laundry. Then I catch you. But I can’t go under the sheets, that’s cheating, I have to run to the end and go back in the row that I juss saw you feet in, but you can run too and keep changin rows at the ends. You can’t go under the laundry either tho’. Sheets on the line is the best thing for this game.”
Why had I never heard of this game? “LETS DO IT!” I exclaimed. We had total fun while we played two times. First she was it, and outsmarted me by being observant and surprising me at the end of a row. So she won. Next I was it, and won just because I was smaller and faster, or possibly ‘cause she let me win. Humm, laundry tag, see what electric clothes dryers have taken from us.
We were laughing when Chin got quiet and with a sterrn cock of her head reminded me of our next task at hand. With a small amount of trepidation I agreed and was ready. The short nap seemed to have taken much of my dread away. Still I thought … ‘let’s do this, … this chicken killing thing, before I change my mind.’
I really didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t know how totally unexpected it would all be.
We went back into the garage room and she explained to me that we would need a few supplies. There was a little laundry basket in the corner, a smaller replica of the one we just used. “We need that.” she pointed out. Then she got a stack of rags and old towels and some aprons out of a cabinet and put them into the basket. Off we marched through the house and into the kitchen where she, opening a cabinet there, asked me to get the big rectangular pan from the bottom and carry it out for her. She also grabbed an old plastic bowl. As we exited I could smell the peach pie and tried to glance back at the table to see it…but we were busy and Chin wasn’t waiting for anything.
Out the back door we went to the gate and through the fairy-tale village to the garden shed. There we stopped for a smaller metal pan with a few items in it. It seemed sort of like a surgeon’s tray. There was a pink handled little stout sharp paring knife, the sister of the turquoise one she had inside, only dingier. In addition was a big cleaver (oh my) joined by some wire cutters, another very long thin knife, some twine, some wire, and a wide slotted ladle.
We took these things around the chicken run to a place on the other side of the coop. there was a little wooden bench/table, a wooden rack, with nails for hanging things, some buckets and a galvanized wash tub and some screen bottomed wide boxes, made of 2 by 4 frames. We set our stuff down and went to Uncle Gus’s shop.
“Well it’s the tyme.” Chin announced. Gus looked up from his work.
“So you tink you got de bravery to do dis eh?” he addressed me.
“Don’t mess with our child her (here),” she said hugging my shoulder, then added some words to him in French. Chin was on a mission, no nonsense. She went over to the side of the room to a big double hotplate. Removing two of the biggest tea kettles I’ve ever seen, the spotted porcelain camping kind, she motioned for me to follow. “We need to take these out to the hose.” Chin placed one of them in my hand. We went out and filled them from the hose and carried them back to the shop. This was a heavy load for a six-and-three- quarter year old child. Chin put them on the hotplate, “We will need hot water for later.” She explained.
“For pulling out the feathers?” I asked, having remembered this from a time before.
“Yes,” Chin answered looking a little surprised, “So you do know somethin about some of this.” I was happy at the seaming confidence she felt with me now. I was also happy that the fear of this whole thing had not yet returned since my nap and tag. Chin asked Gus to turn on the hotplates “In ‘bout an hour.”
“Well then,” Chin paused a good while, “it’s tyme.” She said again
The anxiety raised a notch, well, many notches. Gus clasped my shoulders slightly giving me a squeeze and said something in French to me that I didn’t understand or try to.
Out Chin and I went to the chicken run. She was being a bit stern and serious about it all. I wasn’t sure if this was as usual …or for my benefit. Chin explained that the laundry basket was to catch the hens easily, so she emptied it and grabbed it. Then she pointed them out. “See those two ones, the bigger is the red one and then that fat white one. They is older than the rest and not laying eggs nomore, so it’s time they got to be bakin hens, not fryin, ones like we thawed. No sense keeping them alive and feedin ‘em until they is too tough to eat.” I understood this …and was intrigued.
“Why can’t you fry them?” I asked
“Good question cher, you want to learn eh?… these hens is as I said already too tough to fry. You need young ones for that.” Chin paused then continued to explain, “Sometymes you raise a few not to lay but just for eatin, and kill’em young to be fryers. Sometymes you just get some hens, that just aint lay-ers, we call them pullets when they are young. I don’t raise the chicks, thass a huge amount a’ trouble an this aint no chicken farm.”
“Like your daddy had?” I threw in.
“Uncle Gus tell you that?”
“Yeah, he said you grew up with knowin about chickens.”
“Guess thass so…anyways sometimes you get pullet hens that just aint lay-ers and my-as-well eat them, get use from them, kill’em young and make fryers. Sometymes they isn’t even a hen at all, especailly if you buy them too young and cheep without lookin good first, which I’ll admit I do from time to time if I don’t got a lot of piastre, so then you can got a young rooster by mistake, and never have more than one rooster in your hen house, so kill’em young and make a fryer.” I didn’t know all this stuff and was enthralled with learning it.
“Now we catch one, cher.” Chin suddenly told me. She was speaking softly. We went into the run by the gate. “I want you to mind this gate. Open it and close it as I need without letting out any of my girls OK?” I got my assignment and was ready. Chin went to the brood of hens and suddenly slapped the basket over one the big red hen. Then she reached under the basket and had grabbed the hen by her feet. This was a difficult task for her as she did it with out getting down on the ground but with just bending over, and straightening up to stand I could see was hard on her back…only this time there was hardly an audible groan. I understood that this was now a QUIET time and restrained my galloping mouth. Chin picked her hen up and carried her asking me quietly to open the gate for us and close the gate behind us. The laundry basket was left in the yard. We went to the place she had shown me… the chicken killing place I figured you could call it.
I watched expectantly and quietly, but my heart was beating rapidly and loud. Damn tell tale, I hoped she couldn’t hear it. I was truly frightened at this point, but putting up a brave front. And I think hiding the fact well that I was trembling a tiny bit.
Chin carried the hen to the little bench and set it down never letting go of its feet. Then she had one hand on its back seaming to sooth it as it stopped trying to flap its wings and settled down. “Pitou,” she cooed, “can you please open up one of those towels on the bench next to me here.” I got a towel and laid it out on the remaining end of the bench.
“Like this?” I whispered.
“Perrrfecttt.” Chin answered in a cooing whisper.
The most amazing thing came next. Chin was stroking the hens back and it was calmed down a great deal, then she turned her hand palm up to stroke. The other hand was still holding the hen’s feet. She gently slipped her hand up the hens back opening her fingers in the middle with two fingers on either side as she continued to where her fingers were on either side of the chicken’s head.
Snap, it was over.
Chin had quickly grabbed the chicken by the neck, letting go of the feet and flipped the body down and the head forward and back breaking the chicken’s neck. And just as quickly in the same motion she laid the flapping body in the towel and wrapped it around the hen to hold it still. “Ummmmmm.” she said slowly looking away, with one hand holding the chicken’s body restrained in the towel “Thank you sweet, you been a good hen… given us good eggs… and I think we will enjoy you deliciousness” She kept her hand in place until the chicken’s body stopped twitching and the legs stopped moving.
There was something Chin had just done… just a little action… that I realized as I got much older, made me see death differently. When she spoke the words to the hen after its demise, she didn’t look at the chicken’s body in the towel, she looked out and up. What ever you may think of animal souls or spirits, the hen’s body now was just a body to Chin, its essence was moving elsewhere. Well at my age I have had to say good bye to many a loved one who has passed on, and this perspective of death and the body, has always been with me sinced
I was so astonished to this day it has,… well, prompted me write a story about Aunt Chin. She looked at me when it was over and all I could respond with was a solemn, quiet, long, “Wooowwww.” Chin had a slight respectful smile on her face. It was like she wanted to say to me... “you got it” and I wanted to say back… “ yes, I get it.” Chin also explained that by holding them in the towel, you didn’t get broken wings and sometimes legs from a thrashing around dead hen, which was not only violent but unnecessary.
“Leaving them to just run around, well you couillon (stupid) if you do that. ‘specially if you chop the head off ‘cause ever-thing is bloody mess after that”
Hen number one lay in her towel not moving now and we repeated everything for hen number two. When it was all done, Chin looked to me and said, “Now you see, no bloody mess, no running around dying chickens…it’s just no need for all that.”
At that moment I hugged Aunt Chin’s neck without reservation. A flood of relief and pent up anxiety and emotion came out. I felt sort of like crying or laughing… or… but it wasn’t the bad feeling I had expected, but a sense that I had shared a solemn moment with her and indeed I had. These hens as she said were “her girls” but the cycles of life are things farm people just do and accept
“We still have some not so pleasant things left to do you know, cher.” She added
“I know …like cleaning a fish.” I noted, “and feathering them hens.” Aunt Chin’s eyebrows raised on her face which nodding to me as if to show me that I knew more than she gave me credit for.
We moved on. She took the hose and asked me to turn it on, to which she rinsed her hands and the chickens off some. Then she tied each hen’s feet together and hung them over the wash tub upside down, by the twined feet. Pink paring knife in hand she instructed me that I might want to turn my head. I started to for a moment but curious to see I turned back around as she was putting the knife into the second hens beak and cutting something (the juggler vein) from the inside the hen’s mouth, to which the hens started draining blood into the wash tub. Chin did not let me linger very long looking at this. She rinsed her hands again and turned to me, “Now we leave for a bit” she explained taking me by the hand and leading my back towards the house.
We went in and both washed our hands in the kitchen sink . All the dishes we had dirtied earlier were drying in the drain board. The counters were wiped down clean, and cleared except for the two large bowls again. The blue one still contained flour, the pink one had a towel over it. I picked up the towel and peaked in not sure of what I was seeing. Chin clarified. “That’s those two fryers cut up and soakin in buttermilk, and finishin thawin juss a bit.” The oven was off and the box fan was again blowing into the kitchen. Honky-tonk music was still playing on the radio. I looked around and on the table were displayed two prize pies cooling. I could just see the blue ribbons sitting in front of them, and Aunt Chin dressed with her red dress and top knot hair, with her hands clasped at her bosom, state-fair-fan in one of them, bowing and smiling to the applauding crowd.
“Hey litta’ Pete,” no one had ever called me that before and I kind’a liked it. “what’s say we pick some vegetables for supper.” That sounded splendid to me.
“What vegetables are we going to pick.” I came back with.
“I think that should be your department to decide,…” she said eliciting a puzzled expression from me. “you will be the decider of our vegetable menu for supper.” Suddenly I had a responsibility.
“What do you have growing?” I asked.
“You been to the grocery store, yeah.” She offered braggadociosly, ‘Well that’s about what we got in the garden.” I eyed her with a bit of doubt and she grabbed up the basket we had used for the fruit which had been set on the sideboard. “C’mon… you’ll---see.”
I couldn’t wait to see, and we were on our way to the veggie garden on the left side of the back property. In no time we were there. It was all fenced in and had a sketch of a flat stone path leading up to it. Chin opened the gate and we entered. A fragrant shrub right next to the gate bushwhacked my nose with delight as we both brushed against it when we entered.
“You see now… well you smell now anyways… this is the best of all the herbs I toles you about, but it gets so much bigger than the uthers so is planted here.” I cocked my head in question.
“You know,…,” though I didn’t, “they say ‘always plant rosemary by the garden gate’ …know why they say that!!”
I wasn’t following all of this but I did vaguely remember that little saying.
Aunt Chin explained, “You always plant rosemary by the garden gate because you will brush agin it when you enter the garden. And juss like now you can’t help but be smellin it like running your hand on the uthers.” True enough this smelt wonderful, and made me feel …well…hungry.
“Smelling this helps you want to cook good things from your garden.” She explained and I totally understood though I had never cooked anything. “It’s the Virgin Mary’s herb you know.”
“Virgin Mary?” I looked up at Aunt Chin.
“Well it makes little blue flowers, in the spring and fall too sometimes. They aren’t exactly roses but we say they are, and that’s Virgin Mary’s color you know...blue, plus it smells like heaven…sooo… roses for Mary, it’s called rosemary.”
‘AHHH’ I thought, and brushed my hand across it again, smelling my hand, this was much nicer than the onions, (chives) but just like them it made you think of good tasting food.
Their garden, which I was told that Uncle Gus mostly tended, was everything she had bragged it was. Between sodden sawdust paths were practically weedless rows and beds of all variety. Some plants like the corn with lima beans growing up the stalks, and the okra, tomatoes, and others, were planted in the ground. Other shorter plants like squash cucumbers and melons and rows of various greens, turnip, radish, and carrot tops were in 12 inch high wooden boxed beds. Green beans crawled along the fence, with half-vineing pea plants just below them. And at the very end of the center path, looking like the altar place in this garden church, a white lattice arbor laden with grapes arched over a gate leading over to the chicken place. You just needed a little linen covered table, with a loaf of bread and a communion cup under the grapes to make it complete. I almost felt the need to genuflect.
“Ok baby, whad’ya think we should eat with supper?” I looked around not knowing where to start. “What does your family like?” I was walking by the tomato and okra plants and on the other side were rows of greens.
“I like tomatoes picked fresh and sliced with salt and pepper on them.”
I was still perusing the place.
“So do I.” Chin agreed, “So tomatoes…” she was picking some nice big red ones.
“My parents like okra, and well,… we kids do too if you can cook it not slimy.” I added.
“I can do that. What about fried okra?” that sounded real good to me and I nodded enthusiastically.
“Irene likes green beans, but she likes to just eat them raw off the fence.” I told her how my sister had at times angered my mom by eating up all the green beans before they got picked.
“Do yall like’em cooked?” Chin giggled.
“Do you got mayonnaise to put on them?” I asked.
“I do indeed got my’nase, a big new jar”
“My mom makes the mayonnaise special with pepper.”
“Pepper my’nase, humm sounds good. I shall have to have her show me when they get back. So its green beans, then, some raw for Irene. And special pepper my’nase to put on the cooked ones” She twittered.
“I thought we decided fried okra.” I returned
“Well do both, maybe somebody doesn’t like the okra.” Chin concluded.
We went over to the fence and picked green beans. I noticed some of my green beans looked brighter green and were short and fat. “What’s wrong with these green beans?” I asked showing them to Aunt Chin.
“Well sir, nothin if you’re lookin for peas. Those aint green beans.”
“Uh oh.” I mumbled.
“Not a problem, I’ll add them peas to some I have in the frig already picked. Just pick the darker ones that’s higher hangin right on the fence, these are the green beans….do you like raw green beans too?”
“Not so much.”
“Did you ever try a raw pea pod?” I shook my head no. “Let’s see here we need some small ones.” Chin was bent down looking for immature pea pods. She had about three picked an a second. And offering me one, she also popped one in her mouth. Bite down silly it’s good.” I did crunch into it, mm crisp and wet, sweet and green tasting.
“It’s almost, it’s like salad.” I said smiling
Chin suddenly had an idea. “You know,…pick a bunch of these small ones, the peas, and I will concentrate on the green beans,” I was looking at her questioningly, “You’ll see it will be good!”
After the green beans we went back over to the okra. “We should have sleeves and gloves for this.” She paused looking at the huge plants, they were a lot taller than me, well i think taller than her as well, and filled with okra pods pointing up to the sky, and they still had many pretty blossoms on them. Okra plants make lovely large white five petaled, cup shaped flowers, with a dark purple center. Sort of like a rose of Sharon ornamental shrub. “Well t-man we will just do our best with these itchy bushes. I’ll snip the okras and let them fall, and you pick them up from below, ok?” which is just what we did. Chin with some little clippers snipped off the right sized pods and I gathered them from below. Still, however we got itchy arms and hands from the fuzzy plants.
“So now what other yellow vegetable do we pick?” I realized years later that they all must have read the same healthy menu cook book, ‘cause every dinner my mom ever served, and this supper of Chin’s, and my other Aunts too…each meal had a meat, a starch, (rice or potatoes or macaroni/pasta) a green vegetable, and a yellow vegetable. I remember my mom telling me that they (green and yellow) had different nutrients needed at your evening meal. And habits die hard, though I’m not sure this is a bad habit. I still feel I need a meat, starch, and two vegetables yellow and green, plus a dessert to “help your food go down”, at every good supper.
Regardless we decided on yellow squash… which I did not really like when all boiled to death, and told her so but at supper that night Aunt Chin braised them slightly with browned onions, sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs, instead of boiling them to death. And I found that tasty.
From the vegetable garden we went to the “cool shed”. We dropped off a few veggies and got a few others, and Aunt Chin showed me how it worked. The “hutte froi” definitely had a draft sucking into the door and top windows and out the top, and it was I bet a good 15-20 degrees cooler in there.
From there we went back to the kitchen and washed our hands and the veggies. We set them aside and sat for a short fan break waving our paper fans.
“Well are you ready to go finish cleanin out those chickens so we can get to havin some lunch?” Chin proposed.
Lunch sounded great so off we went to return to the chicken task at hand.
Sunday Drive: Stand by Me
2 days ago