When I was a kid in the country during World War II, my mother kept a yard of white leghorn chickens to feed the family in a time of rationing. These stupid fowls are why I detest all birds today — they would rush at you, all beady eyes and sharp beaks and disgusting feet, when time came to scatter their food. All in all they had a happier life, scaring children to death and squabbling over worms and bugs, than chickens do today.
If my grandmother, who could wring a chicken’s neck, wasn’t around, Mother had to wait for somebody else with this talent to pass along the road in front of the house and do it for her. One day, no one came by and the pot was waiting, so she pressed me into service. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, except to say that she caught one of the chickens and got a hatchet from the garage that turned out to be so badly in need of sharpening that it was ineffectual. I was required to hold the bird, which got up and ran away, uncut, maybe slightly bruised, but seemingly undaunted by its ordeal. We never tried such a thing again.
I got to thinking about this yucky episode the other day, reading a novel about life on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s. Every time I’ve gotten into books set in the pre-Colonial or American frontier era, I’ve wondered how, if I’d lived then, my family would have coped, what with a mother who couldn’t dispatch a chicken. (In rural Texas in the 1880s my paternal grandmother simply shot them in the head from the back steps.)
It’s not just the processing of meat for the table that would have been required of me. Stuck in a cabin out on the edge of the fields cleared for the family farm, I would have had to make clothing and household linens, piece together rag rugs and quilts, all of this when I wasn’t putting up fig preserves and cutting everybody’s hair. Or knitting and embroidering and crocheting decorative pieces for the house. Oh, and milking — I might have had to actually milk, perish the thought.
I just don’t see how a woman with my lack of manual dexterity could have managed well. Picture my daughters, all dressed for church in dresses that were the laugh of the rest of the congregation. Picture my sons’ hair.
What did women pretty much devoid of talent in the gentle arts do in those days? Perhaps my sisters — both of whom could sew well — would have lived nearby and helped me while I cleaned their houses and slopped their pigs. Perhaps I could have joined a quilting club whose members would instruct me. Perhaps my husband and I could have afforded a competent hired couple.
If you’re older and thinking, well I grew up in New Orleans where my great grandmother could go to seamstresses and the French Market where chickens were ready for the pot, and street vendors brought milk and vegetables right to her back door, then your foremothers did have an easier time. I’m talking about the men who left civilization and took their wives — surely sometimes whimpering — with them.
I get to thinking about my family’s and country’s past more often as I age; 65 years, 130 years, 250 years ago doesn’t seem as far back to me now as it once did. The people who were old when I was born link me to those who were old when they were born, and so on back through the generations. I wonder if it’s this way with everybody.
I have a copy of a photograph of the Elijah Bell family taken in their front yard in 1898. He — with the flowing white beard of a patriarch — looks about 100, but couldn’t have been more than 60. His wife, Minerva Aiken Bell, sits in another chair at his side and their numerous children and grandchildren are seated behind them in rows the width of their house with its big white porch. I don’t know when she found the time.
My grandmother is somewhere in the crowd with her brothers and sisters; she was lucky that my grandfather, leaning against a tree at the side of the photo, never decided to follow his uncle to California.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.