Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Things to Smile About (the Pennsylvania version)

1. At night, when we bring the chickens into the coop from their various huddled roosting-spots out in the yard, they're sleepy and tractable and easy to scoop. When I fold them against my chest, they murmur drowsy, confused clucks and flap briefly before wrapping their feet around my fingers and leaning their downy warmth into my jacket. They are exactly like sleeping babies, the way babies wake just enough to clutch your finger in their sweet, shockingly strong grip, then plummet back into limp and trusting unconsciousness.

2. My hands smell of peppers and tomatoes and basil, or vanilla and custard, and my clothes smell of good dirt and chicken shit and sky.

3. Local dialect and phrasing, so peculiar at first, is so easy to pick up. Frugal as Yankees and practical as rubber boots, the founding Pennsylvania Dutch must at some point have determined the "to be" verb unnecessary and thus, if not an outright sin, at the very least well worth avoiding; a moral edict that's imbued the local vernacular with such gems as "The potatoes need dug" and "The rug needs vacuumed yet." I'm not sure where the extra "yets" come from. Around here, people pour "yet" onto sentences as generously as they do syrup on scrapple.
For all their heavy-handedness with that particular idiom, though, they're shy with my given name, as if it's an obscure piece of farm equipment, practical in an emergency when "she" or "her" won't get the job done, but newfangled enough to warrant a cautionary pause before attaching it to any well-worn machinery and turning it on. I get a kick out of this; "Jessica" as a word of last resort.

4. The other night I spoke with my Boston aunt. She's a graphic designer, cosmopolitan in the way only urbane, childless people can be, and joyful in her freedoms. While the rest of us bundled our woolen sweaters tighter and piled into the minivan to go visit the grandparents at holidays, she and my uncle would skip town to race sailboats under exotic skies, bringing back delicious wines and beautiful tans. I admired her independence as some sort of Houdini-esque, over-the-top act of familial resistance, charming in its unabashed selfishness, and took great pleasure following suit in later, firmer years.
When I told my Boston aunt of the joys and respite I'd found here on the farm, that I've half a heart to settle down and become an Anabaptist housewife, spending the rest of my days baking pies and raising children and pulling warm eggs out from under the chickens, there was a horrified pause.
"That's crazy talk," she informed me, loudly, her voice taking me by the shoulders and shaking.
"The next time you think crazy thoughts like that, call me and I'll talk you out of it."
Coming as it did, it was testament to both her love and her concern for my general sanity.
But some people really just don't get chickens.

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