When chooks trigger memories of friends and family

THE Taj Mahal of chicken coops is perched on a little promontory overlooking the bush.

It is a thing of beauty.

It has multiple levels, a penthouse with views, a viewing platform where the chooks can be the mistresses of all they survey, and a large lower lounge area where they can sun themselves and scratch in the dirt to their hearts’ content. It has two hay bales for the fastidious, a baby mulberry tree and a pot in which a very healthy succulent is growing. No spa though, I noted to the owner.

If there was a Vogue Living for chook pens the Taj Mahal would be featured in a spread, with the chickens draped across their little wooden benches sipping martinis and eating worm mousse on crackers.  

If there was a Vogue Living for chook pens the Taj Mahal would be featured in a spread, with the chickens draped across their little wooden benches sipping martinis and eating worm mousse on crackers.

The coop is home to eight bantam hens of different colours. I first saw them a few months ago when they were tiny puff balls in the frontyard, before the Taj Mahal was built. I wasn’t the only one who worried for them as they wandered and scratched near the road, as quiet as the road usually is. But they were street-smart chooks, their owner assured me this week after I dropped in to admire their home.

The chickens didn’t cross the road, in other words.

They were out of the coop the other day when I dropped in, fluffed-up and scratching in bushes beneath a large tree. They were moving as a loose group in that endearing way little chooks do, looking self-important and determined in the never-ending search for worms and bugs, and hunkering down every so often when a noisy miner bird buzzed them.   

The chooks have elaborate names - so elaborate that I can only remember one of them. Shake ‘n Bake. I laughed when I heard. But before I had the chance to ask “Why Shake ‘n Bake?”, with a tiny alarm bell ringing in the back of my head about the answer, I was introduced to the next which had an even more improbable name – something like Lady Penelope Blinkington-Phelps, and we moved on.

A quick Google search turns up a product called Shake ‘n Bake, a “flavoured breadcrumb-style coating for chicken” which comes with a bag that you shake the crumbs and chicken in, so I’m glad I didn’t ask.

The chickens’ owners are a young woman and her husband who built the Taj Mahal using materials recovered from family, friends and neighbours.

The young woman, and I’ll call her Belle, is 12 days younger than my middle son.

Belle’s mother, and I’ll call her Joy, and I were pregnant together and our babies were born in 1987.

Our eldest children – a girl for Joy, a boy for me – were born six weeks apart in 1985, my son first.

Joy, my former husband and I first met a year or so before we became pregnant. She was one of the sweetest, most beautiful women I have known, with a radiance that came from her inner goodness. I can hear her voice as I write this – soft and with a lovely lilt from her home country.

We hit it off. When she introduced us to her husband we became friends who spent a lot of time together. I have photos of those years when our children were young – of us camping, sharing holidays, eating at each others’ homes, spending Christmas together.

I had a third and final son. Joy and her husband had another three children – two boys and a girl.

Her youngest daughter was born the day Joy died of a cerebral haemorrhage in the mid 1990s. She was in her late 30s.

Like a lot of shocking events it is remembered as separate, vivid images and phrases – turning my car too quickly into a driveway while crying and hitting a median strip; the tightness in my husband’s face when I told him, and the way he didn’t respond at all for quite a few seconds while he struggled with disbelief; standing in the kitchen with Belle and her older sister that night and talking about food we had no stomach to eat; seeing Joy in the hospital, kept alive by the drugs she was given for her daughter’s birth; seeing her newborn sleeping baby in a crib in the nursery, surrounded by other babies.

She had her mother’s dark hair. She was beautiful and healthy and in that setting with its lowered lights, the babies wrapped and mainly sleeping, she looked like the others. But her life, only minutes old, was already very different.

In two weeks I will be a grandmother for the first time. A little baby girl. My youngest son and his partner are prepared and live a few streets away. I have been the butt of every joke going around about what deals were done to ensure I am the closest grandparent.

I have photos of my youngest son when he was barely two, walking around the backyard of the house we had at the time carrying a big fat black chook in his arms. She was one of four we kept in a large pen where they produced big brown warm eggs.

Our sons named them. Thus we had four chooks called Joanne. I was the butt of the joke back then as well and my children hadn’t even started school. It was my youngest son’s great joy to walk around the yard carrying the chooks, one at a time. The chooks must have felt supported because they sat in his arms until he plopped them down, and went off to get another one.

Joy did not live to see her grandchildren. She now has four. There was an echo of grief all over again, even all these years later, as I left her daughter’s house and headed in the direction of where my youngest son now lives. Her youngest daughter – the baby whose head would turn a certain way and cause a pang for those who saw it, because she was so much like her mother – is a mother.

Joy is gone but not gone.

I stood in that yard the other day talking to Belle’s husband while the chickens clucked and scratched, and Joy was there – in the love of that home and the sense of welcome. Which is how we should remember.  

This story Chooks and memories first appeared on Newcastle Herald.