It was the iPhone photo of them in the Cheez-It box that crystallized the 25-day fostering. Even when son Clayton asked where Fort Smith Atwood’s is located and explained that he wanted to buy baby chicks to take home for children Liam and Claire, I knew something far-reaching was coming down the pike. Clayton and Jenny’s family live a stone’s throw from the Houston Medical Center in a house with a postage stamp backyard — 10 feet from neighbors on both sides. He says he is taking chickens home to Houston? In his Ford C-Max Energi with Claire in her car seat, luggage, ice chest, as well as all of his reading material?
I learned long ago to remain silent as long as Clayton’s actions did not harm himself or others, were not illegal and did not bring disgrace to the family. (Mama emphasized the necessity of that last consideration.) Besides, I was on my way to Aunt Treva’s 95th birthday party and wanted to arrive in the proper spirit of conviviality. We were expecting cousins from Texas and California; therefore, I needed to save voice for visiting.
Aunt Treva’s party was to be a surprise. Guests were to arrive at 12:45; Aunt Treva shortly after 1 o'clock. Sister Patsy; nieces Reshia and Stephanie; Arkansas, Texas, and California cousins; and friends trickled in, hugging, laughing and snacking while waiting for the birthday girl to arrive. Of course, I was watching the door for Clayton and Claire’s arrival, giving little thought to the reason for their being late. Clayton had driven from Houston to Fort Smith yesterday to attend today’s celebration. He would be along eventually.
Clayton and Claire did arrive just in time to join the group in singing "Happy Birthday" as Aunt Treva arrived, trying hard to appear surprised. Time flies when we’re having fun. All too soon it was 4 o'clock and time for Clayton and Claire to drive south toward Houston. Heading outside for goodbye hugs, I noticed a crowd around the open hatch of the C-Max. Perched on top of a suitcase was a cardboard carrier with small round holes on all sides, just like the one a veterinarian once provided for transporting our cat. Huddled in one corner were six baby chicks, not yet fully feathered, just enough to see there were three dark and three light. Close by sat a sack of chick starter. Clayton gently placed the carrier on the ground to allow the chicks to eat and drink from two small silos purchased just for them.
As Clayton, Claire, and six baby chicks headed home to Houston, I have never been prouder of my son. These chicks proved the depth of Clayton’s bond to his roots and his intention to extend that bond to his own children. You see, chicks have participated in our family’s life for generations. On Mama’s place back behind the building that housed garage, wash house and blacksmith shop sat the brooder house, and I remember Mama’s carefully placing fertilized eggs under a large tin disc that somehow provided warmth to incubate the eggs. Although I cannot describe exactly how the incubator functioned, I still have the large disc that is now used to cover my riding mower. I learned patience and gentleness as Mama turned the eggs three times daily to ensure they received even warmth. Seeing the eggs begin to crack after 21 days and watching the wrinkled, featherless chicks kick and squirm their way to light, I recognized the miracle of new life. Caring for the chicks and watching them grow taught me responsibility, bringing pride in seeing the results of my effort.
The first picture of Clayton’s chicks was sent from the Hilton Garden Inn in Longview, where he and Claire stopped to spend the night. Truthfully, I did not expect all of the chicks to survive the trip to Houston, but all six arrived alive and well to begin their 25 days of foster care in the Finney’s garage. Pictures from iPhone to iPhone showed feathers thickening and craws expanding, evidence that these chicks were not only surviving but were indeed thriving. Clayton supplemented their chicken starter diet with tadpoles from a puddle on the construction site next door. Claire held the chicks, singing rock-a-bye chickie; Liam invited the boys across the street to come see the chicks from Arkansas.
Soon daughter Lee Anna texted from Chicagoland the pictures taken at Atwood’s last spring when she and her children visited Fort Smith — the ones of Anya tiptoeing to watch baby chicks and Evan and Anya playing inside chicken coops. I forwarded pictures to other family, and soon chicken stories surfaced from long ago. Patsy and I detailed again funeral arrangements for our pet chick after its untimely hop just as my foot came down next to it. The chick was laid to rest in a kitchen matchbox lined with one of Mama’s quilt blocks. I said a few words of farewell, and we both sang “We Shall Gather at the River” before placing the remains in a shallow grave beneath the pear tree. Wildflowers and a cross of two sticks were reverently placed on top. Clayton’s mother-in-law, Phyllis, shared that one of her brother’s fluffy Easter chicks turned into a mean rooster. I recalled that when Mama knew Reshia and Stephanie or Clayton and Lee Anna were coming to visit, she waited for them to gather the eggs.
As the Houston chicks grew, so did the boxes. After three weeks, six chick heads peered from that Cheez-It box, and Clayton texted that come Tuesday, the chicks are going to the farm. Farm? In Houston? Oh, yes. Jenny had arranged for the farmer who provides free range eggs for a nearby farmers market to take the chicks to his farm outside the city. Sure enough, Tuesday’s pictures showed a large box with holes on top being carefully placed upon a small trailer while Liam and Claire watched, appearing satisfied that their chicks were ready to live a farm life intended for chickens. Sent also was a picture of two dozen large brown, free range eggs received in the exchange.
I know the life-enriching impact of Chickens in a Cheez-It box will be far-reaching. Just think about it. Doesn’t caring for chicks teach valuable life skills? I learned them as a child. What satisfaction I receive knowing they are now being shared with my grandchildren. Thank you, Clayton and Lee Anna, for extending our roots to the next generation in the circle of life.
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.