“You’ve never been to see Donna’s chickens?” my mother asked from the driver’s seat of the family Prius.
“Nope,” I croaked. Stuffed between my pregnant sister and her three-year-old in the back, I could barely breathe let alone carry on a conversation. My sister and I visited our parents in California at least twice a year, and as the younger of two adult children, I normally presided over the family agenda. We’d go to the beach, taste wine, or leisurely shop the farmer’s market. But the pecking order had recently changed, and this outing reeked of a grandchild.
“Edie’s been to see the chickens.” She glanced into the rearview mirror at my first and only niece, who sat quietly fiddling with a plastic fairy in her car seat.
At that point, Edie and I hadn’t spent much time together. I lived blissfully childfree and thousands of miles away in New York City. I’d never babysat (well, not effectively anyway) and wasn’t quite sure what to make of such a tiny person or her casual displays of affection. She was always giving hugs, offering gifts of little or no monetary value, and saying thing like, “I love you, Aunt Sarah.”
“I hate this baby,” my sister declared just a few days after my parents brought me home from the hospital. She was only three at the time and couldn't possibly fathom what a pill I’d turn out to be. Take my four-year bout of insomnia that began around age six. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and make a beeline for my parents’ bedroom. They found a quick fix to deflect the problem: a second twin bed in my sister’s room. By the time I went back to sleeping in my own room, she was already in junior high.
Still on rocky terrain emotionally, I wasn’t ready for the “important talk” my mother suggested we have.
“What is it,” I asked.
Her eyes twinkled.
“How would you feel about having a baby brother or sister?”
She must have picked up on my disappointment because she quickly corrected herself.
“I’m just kidding. Your dad and I are thinking of moving to California.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. We’d lived in Illinois for my entire life. All of our friends and family were there. I cried for at least an hour, and for some reason, my parents chose not to move until almost a decade later when I went to college, a plan they basically announced while throwing me out of a moving van in front of my new dorm room.
“Think how fun it will be to come visit,” my mother offered.
In another 10 years, my parents were over us entirely. After a few days of hosting the larger, hungrier versions of the children they remember, my mother and father stopped trying to entertain us. Since it takes my family hours to evaluate even the simplest of propositions, visiting a backyard chicken coop wouldn’t normally pass muster. For one, it’s not “on the way” to anywhere in particular.
“We don’t want to be stuck in the car all day,” they’d say to avoid a 15-minute drive to pick up milk. My father would go about his daily business: black coffee and cereal doused in orange juice or, lacking that, water. By definition, a destination is always on the way, since it marks the end point of a given route. But try telling that to my family and you’re likely to argue over whether to take two cars, Highway 68, or even worse, the dreaded “mileage-cost-to-enjoyment” ratio of the proposed activity.
The day we went to see the chickens, I knew something was amiss. My mother announced we’d be leaving in 30 minutes, which set off a frenzy of gathering: sunscreens, baby books, organic gluten-free trail mix — you name it, we don’t want to go without. Whether to bring a coat or a sweater is another major source of controversy, the right answer rooted in a myriad of complexities: the altitude of the destination, proximity to the ocean, and tilt of the earth’s axis in relation to the sun. If we plan to be there past dinner, it's best to just bring both.
By the time we’re able to fully load into a car, at least one person has to run back into the house to use the bathroom. At that point, I would have normally given up due to a missing sun-hat fiasco — or when I found out there wasn’t enough room in the cooler for my hastily prepared turkey sandwich. But for fear of being forced out by an interloper, I had no choice but to edge my way onto a 12-inch hump of leather upholstery.
“Alright chickadees, we’re here,” my mother said, as we pulled into a long and winding driveway. Her friend, Donna, greeted us at the sliding glass door.
“Why Edie, you’ve gotten so big,” she said kindly before leading us toward a fenced-in enclosure at the back of the house. A large but narrow coop made up of a roosting area and enclosed run lined the back fence. Next to it sat what appeared to be a miniature red barn with a chicken-size set of double doors. An older man with thick glasses (whom I knew as half of “Donna and Bill”) opened the doors to reveal a nest and a three freshly laid brown eggs. I assume he did this for Edie’s benefit, but I rushed up to get a better look anyway.
“Are those the eggs?”
I guess he thought it was a rhetorical question. Without pause, he unlatched the coop, and a dozen chickens flocked out into the yard.
“Aunt Sarah, come chase the chickens with me!” cried my little niece.
I pretended to only be indulging the request of a child and shrugged my shoulders at the other adults. Secretly, I’d waited my whole life for such an invitation. A much more formidable opponent than a three-foot galloping toddler in an all-purple outfit and fuchsia sunglasses, I stood erect at an impressive five-foot-five (okay, four-and-three-quarters, but that didn’t stop me from spooking those birds!). About 15 minutes into the whizzing feathers and pecking of beaks, I started to wonder how this henhouse functioned.
“Is there a rooster?” I asked its owner, Bill.
“Nah,” he said. “The neighbors wouldn’t much care for the noise.”
Hmm, I wondered, attempting to mentally parse the physics of chicken sex. In the better part of 30 years, I’d learned that my mother was the best person to field questions about reproduction. On a family trip to Florence, I’d asked her why the penises on all of the statues were so small. Since the women were also oddly portrayed as round and cherub-faced with dainty features, I thought maybe it was an evolutionary thing.
“This might be a stupid question,” I asked. “But how do the chickens lay eggs with no male?” My mother’s reaction was one I’d seen many times before — usually after she went to a good deal of trouble to give me important instructions on how not to set the house on fire. I respond with, “Got it. What were we talking about again?” She then makes a frustrated horse-like exhalation whereby enough air escapes her mouth to dishevel her pretty salt-and-pepper-colored bangs. The overall effect is the look of someone whose life I’ve ruined solely by existing.
“They’re unfertilized, ding-dong.”
A few months later, it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been the one to drive my parents insane. We’d all made the annual pilgrimage back to Illinois for a family reunion — and to spend time with Edie’s new little sister, Annabelle, who introduced herself by projectile-vomiting down the back of my shirt. Since my baby-handling skills were no better than Edie’s, we sat at a plastic table in the corner and colored together quietly.
One evening, after helping her into a pair of pink pajamas and reading an hour or so worth of children’s stories, she finally appeared ready for bed. I kissed her on the cheek, closed the door, and tiptoed into the bathroom for a hot shower. I was just beginning to relax when I heard a singsong voice through the drizzle.
A tiny blonde head popped in through the shower curtain.
“Yes, dear,” I sighed.
I’d finally broken through to the other side.