Digging through some old journal entries and thinking about fowl, again, I recently asked my mom what useful purpose roosters served on the farm. She immediately started laughing, saying, “Linda, surely you know what roosters do!!!” That put both of us on the floor laughing. “Of course I do! But we never hatched our own chicks, so why did we have roosters around?”

I ask because the one I so vividly recall was the meanest damn bird. To leave the house and avoid attack, we kept a long-handled spade outside by the door to hold him off so we could make it to the truck, or if he was super aggressive, to knock him a bit silly. He terrified us kids. We would carefully open the door, peek out, and grope for the handle of the spade leaning against the side of the house. Often, hearing the door open would bring him running, full strut. An alpha male with no fear, even considering he was only a third the size of a kid. His head bobbed back and forth, and his pace never slowed when the spade was in sight. Brazen and bold, but dumb.

In the morning, when we walked down our long lane to wait for the bus, he would occasionally find us. Our screams would draw Mom out of the house, and she would act as a decoy and get him to chase her instead of us. I can only recall one time that he was of any benefit to me. After my sister and I had had a pretty good fight, she went outside and I went to our bedroom. I ran to the window when I heard her screams from outside. She had ventured into the barnyard without the spade and that rooster was hot on her trail! I distinctly remember thinking, “I win.” So why did we have that rooster? I had forgotten that we took him in when Mom’s cousin and her family moved away and could not take him with them. We were a rooster refuge. Mom nor I can remember what ever happened to him, but we both remember his mean streak.

I know another rooster story that took place well before any farm memories settled in my brain. My dad had a “pet” rooster with enormous spurs on the back of his legs, near his feet. When Grandma or Mom went into the chicken coop to pick up eggs, he often saw their visits as an opportunity for battle. He would jump on their backs and peck them, using those spurs to dig in. I can easily visualize the episode, complete with the sound bite of the cussing that ensued. Fed up one day after my grandma had been attacked, my mom told Grandma they had a little job to do. The rooster had chosen the wrong day for battle because Mom and Grandma had extra time on their hands.

It took Dad a while to realize the rooster was gone. When he finally asked about him, Mom delivered the one-liner: “You ate him for dinner a few days ago.” I hesitate to write this; it sounds so close yet so foreign! To hear this story without the background of living in a place so close to your meals, it sounds a little barbaric. That was probably over 35 years ago. We all laugh over it now, and Dad says he didn’t eat chicken for a month after that. And the reason this rooster was kept around? Dad and Grandpa liked to hear him crow. Can you guess who never picked up the eggs?

If Grandma were still alive, she and Mom would be able to co-teach an inspiring version of “Problem-solving” in today’s world. If chased by a rooster, you pick up a long-handled spade. If attacked by a rooster, you do what you need to do. Either way, deal with it and move on.


Linda P.S. Mom, thanks for filling in the gaps of my memory for this one! Judy, thanks for the “material”! ;)

Dancing with a Foreign City Slicker

In 1989, a friend introduced me to her soccer coach but told me to take heed as he was a real partier. Six weeks later, I was dating this humorous man with an intriguing English accent. Three months later, we were driving to Iowa to spend Easter with my family. After we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa farm country, I began my tutorial in Manure 101. The smells along the way were clearly defined for me by my nose. I tried to describe the scent we smelled so as to help Bill differentiate between cow and pig. They were so obviously different; I was having a hard time understanding why he couldn’t smell the difference. Pig manure is stringent. It really stinks and lingers unpleasantly. Cow manure is mellower; it lacks the pungency of that of the smaller hoofed animal. While this lesson entertained us for 1 ½ hours, I was unsuccessful. About five years later, I would realize that Bill really can’t smell much of anything. During this trip, he was most likely making guesses based on nothing he could smell. He was just appeasing me. Wooing me across the heartland.

Arriving at my parents’ house, Bill picked up his duffel bag and I heard a clanking. I asked what it was. “I brought a couple bottles of wine for your parents.” I popped his bubble, “Oh…. They don’t drink.” This grandson of a London pub owner looked at me somewhat bewildered. After the Easter turkey dinner, the bewildered looks jumped to the Murphys. As Bill stood up to help Mom clear the table, amidst blank looks from all the other men still seated around the table, Bill asked, “Could we save the turkey drippings for breakfast?” “Of course,” my mom obligingly replied. She didn’t ask questions. The next morning, baffled by how Bill was planning to dine on drippings, Mom offered to heat them up for Bill. Bill replied, “Oh, no thank you. I just spread it on toast.” “Oh… OK.” No one joined him. (Sidebar: According to Bill, this year’s drippings were excellent. The butter and whole herbs must have added to the flavor. I was also informed that his morning-after tradition isn’t as enjoyable if I’m in the kitchen. In my presence, he feels guilty slathering on the turkey fat. My look has nothing to do with his arteries; I’m just still a little grossed out by the breakfast, even after twenty years of the tradition. “You don’t have turkey drippings every day. I really don’t mind if you have it on occasion,” thinking quietly to myself, just don’t expect me to join in any time soon.)

After we were married, trips to Iowa continued to be learning experiences for all involved. Bill loves getting his hands dirty in projects with Dad and my brothers. One day Dad told Bill to get a pitch fork out of the barn. He went to the middle of the barnyard, stopped, looked at the four buildings, and then came to find me. “Linda, there are four barns out there. How am I supposed to know which one the fork is in?” I went outside with him and started my Barnyard Building 101 tutorial. I pointed to each one and identified them: the shop, the corn crib, the hay shed, and, finally, the barn. I half expected to see Dad laughing behind one of the buildings.

A couple years later, on another adventure in Iowa during corn picking season, all the machinery was in the barnyard. Bill came over to me and said, “You’ve got to see this little field mouse by the combine tire. It’s tiny and the tire is so huge.” I asked, “It’s just sitting there?” thinking it was probably sick. Bill nodded with a smile. I went and had a look. Dad came over to see what we were gawking at. He looked down. “What the hell?” Then… stomp. My delicate dance I had been doing with a foot on either side of the Mississippi ended in a collision of unspeakable magnitude. City meet farm. Dad didn’t miss a beat; he went back to work, but I’m sure Bill’s heart momentarily stopped beating. We didn’t talk about the incident on Murphy soil, but later that day, about the time we were crossing the Mississippi on the way home to Illinois, Bill simply said, “Ya know, I’ve been thinking about that mouse.” I tried to explain that to Dad it was a small version of a big rat, and rats tend to run up pant legs on occasion. Again, my explanation was unsuccessful.

After the mouse incident, Bill placed a special order when Mom wondered what cuts we wanted from our half a hog. Bill asked Mom to get the kidneys for him. “Of course,” mom obligingly replied. This time he explained. Steak and kidney pie was a tradition in England. I’m not sure how Mom told the butcher she wanted pork kidneys, normally refuse. Perhaps the explanation went something like, “You see, my daughter is dancing with a foreign city slicker…”



Black Dirt

I miss good black dirt. Our house and the whole town, if not the state of Massachusetts, is built on ledge – which I define as big rocks. These make for spectacular cliffs but not great planting ground. Throughout town, big pieces of ledge have been blasted to make room for houses. A new house in our area sits six feet from a newly blasted rocky cliff. No backyard. Just a back rock.

We have rocky muckish colored dirt that’s filled with broken glass. Apparently our property was a dump for glass bottles years ago. We have a ridge of maple trees all around our property. The boys love climbing up the hill and hiding in the trees. But every spring before the leaves pop, I search the hill for glass brought to the surface by the spring thaw. Hours I spend picking up broken glass so it doesn’t end up in a little boy’s hand.

Two years ago I decided to create a small flower garden at the bottom of the ridge. I took a spade to my pathetic looking dirt and slowly turned it over. Revealing rocks and glass with every twist of the shovel. Occasionally striking a rock that would jar me to the core. Frequently murmuring, “This sucks.” After thirteen years at the same house in Illinois, I had an English country garden. It started as a hill in the backyard, and after mowing it for two seasons, I had a bigger vision. Instead of scalping it every time I mowed, I was going to plow it up. Mom and Dad gave me a tiller for my birthday and I put Bill to work, pushing the tiller and ripping up the sod. After I got the grass chunks killed off, I started planting. Anything I put in the ground grew in my sun-drenched rich soil. I kept a stone path through the flowers down the hill. When we left the house, the flowers were firmly established and more than waist-high. Glorious. And now, oh woe is me, I have four inches of mucky rock-filled, glass-filled, shade-filled pitiful dirt.

While I’m a little overwhelmed by my dirt and how to make it productive, my friend in town has created the most spectacular garden over the last fifteen years. Growing up in Michigan, I imagine she was used to good dirt as well, better than ledge anyway. Her garden was a paved drive when she bought her house. She had it jack-hammered out and then went about creating, encouraging and feeding the ground. The result is breathtaking. And she continuously nurtures her dirt, bringing in horse manure and collecting weekly droppings from a friend’s rabbit.

And as I bemoan my rock-filled earth, I’m having a vision of a clear Iowa cornfield ready for spring planting. And now a flashback: I know why there are no rocks in it. Growing up, Dad would pull a hay rack behind a tractor while Mom, Grandma Murphy, and us kids picked up rocks and chucked them on the rack. For years, freshly turned earth revealed new rocks that had to be removed before planting corn and beans.

So, I’m waiting for the boiling point when I just decide I need a flower garden. Deep down, I know where it’s going to be. We have a big barren piece of shady backyard. And for two or three years I’ve resisted seeding it. To me it needs to be landscaped. To Bill it needs grass. To me, I think it needs borders. Flower-filled borders. I believe we’ve been having a subconscious duel. I’m revving up the tiller and getting a lead on horse and rabbit poop. Ah, that will need to wait until spring; I don’t think my oncologist would want me playing in that right now.

Staying strong, but missing black dirt,


A Fowl Story

“Play date” was not a part of my family’s vocabulary when I was a kid. The closest thing we ever had to a play date was "a visit" from my aunts and our cousins. And in late summer, with my cousins who also lived on a farm, that meant it was time to butcher chickens. My lack of interest in cooking whole fowl most likely stems from those butchering days. As my mom and my aunt quickly cut the heads off, they would let those flip-flapping bodies loose. And even without eyes, headless chickens can chase nine kids with incredible accuracy. The safest place to run was to the back of the pick-up truck. Barefooted, we flew across the gravel drive to clamber up the bumper and over the tail gate. Once they were still, Mom brought out boiling water and filled five gallon buckets to dip them in so as to loosen the feathers. Then each of us kids had work to do: plucking. The soft feathers were easiest to pull out. The wings were the toughest. The little kids would pull the easy ones and then us older kids and our moms would have to clean-up what the 5-year-olds left on each chicken. And as we worked, those boy cousins would always try to whack us girls on the bare legs with a dead chicken. We choreographed our own chicken dance to avoid contact.

My aunt would oversee the plucking while mom built a fire in the 55 galloon fire barrel. After we plucked, my mom and my aunt would hold the naked chickens over the fire to singe off all the tiny pin feathers and hair. As younger kids, that ended our work and the “play date” could commence while Mom and my aunt went about cleaning and cutting up the chickens to freeze. The next play date would be at my aunt’s house to butcher her chickens. Coincidentally, at one of those get-togethers, one of those same boy cousins planted a big, dead bull snake on the doorstep of their house hoping his mom would step on it. However, my mom, carrying a big tray of chickens to the truck, walked out of the house and stepped on it with her bare feet. The tray blocked her view of the trap. My cousin was mortified when my mom stepped on it! That black thing all neatly coiled up was more the size of a small python than a Gartner snake.

The 24 chickens butchered that day would not even make a dent in Mom’s freezer space. I think a small cow would fit in each of her freezers. Every time I go home they seem to grow in enormity. There are three of them in the basement, referred to as the freezer on the west wall, the freezer on the south wall under the stairs and the freezer on the south wall against the west wall. Mom has a running catalog in her head as to what is in each freezer – all are nearly full.

Mom and Dad gave Bill and me a small deep freeze as a wedding gift. After a trip home to Mom and Dad’s, I think of my freezer as a baby offspring of theirs. The contents of our freezers point to the different path my life has taken. Away from the farm. Away from the meat locker. Mom and Dad rarely buy beef and pork at the store. They buy a pig from their neighbor and fill their freezer with beef from cattle they’ve raised. Their freezer is filled with neat white packages of meats processed at the locker, no per pound cost listed on each package. I feel like I have to pay for all my meat twice: once at the grocery store and again I get to see what it costs when it comes out of the freezer.

I can tell you one thing that I rarely see in Mom’s freezer… whole chickens and bone-in chicken parts. I’m guessing Mom got her fill of whole fowl too. I know exactly where my bag of individually frozen chicken breasts is and I bet Mom knows which freezer hers are in as well.

(Written on Thanksgiving Day as I think about that big bird in my fridge and hope that Bill will take on the role of head bird baker today.)

Little did I know... Turkey and Fire...


Staying strong, Linda

(Another fowl story!  Roosters.)