Holidays such as Thanksgiving often make us recall our childhoods. It was this time of year when, as a naïve young girl, I was forced to learn the harsh realities of life. But those experiences also awarded me with a lesson, one I hope to always remember.
Since we lived next to a pond and raised ducks and geese, we would often have roast duck or goose instead of a turkey for Thanksgiving. My father was in charge of the butchering. I would hear the grinder and know Dad was sharpening the ax. Squawks and flapping wings would conjure up the image of the first duck’s head on the butcher block.
Dad would bring the limp ducks to the basement where he would dip them in a pot of scalding water with Ivory soap added to loosen the feathers. I’d help pluck them. Afterward, he would slice them open and clean them out. As he removed various parts such as the intestines, heart, and gizzard, he would identify them. I recall him taking the time to slice open a gizzard once and show me the gravel the duck had ingested to help grind up its food. For fun, he’d also squeeze the esophagus—he called it the quacker—and the sound always made me laugh.
I was allowed to have a menagerie of pets. Heathcliff, the pigeon I’d raised from a hatchling, would come to my call, as would my bantam rooster and hen, Henry and Henrietta. When Dad built a rabbit hutch and brought home young albino rabbits for my siblings and me, I was delighted.
The rabbits’ long fluffy white fur made them especially cuddly. On warm days, I liked to take them out to a field of clover where they could munch away. On hot summer days, I would bring my favorite to the pond’s shoreline to see if she wanted to get a drink or play in the water. She’d spring along the shoreline, hop, hop, hop, and munch contentedly on the moist grass. Afterward, she’d sit on my lap and I’d stroke her soft fur.
One autumn afternoon, an unusual smell came from the kitchen. It wasn’t smelt, which my mother served often since we lived near Lake Michigan and smelt were plentiful. It wasn’t venison, although we had that often, too.
When I sat down at the table, I saw dinner had haunches, legs, ribs, and bellies. Our pet rabbits.
My stomach rolled. I fled to my bedroom. When my mother came to check on me, I told her I had the flu. I’m not sure why I didn’t confess to my weakness. Maybe I was embarrassed. I spent the rest of the night in my bedroom.
I don’t recall my father ever checking on me. It wasn’t that he was cruel. He was practical. Dad was born in 1925, so his childhood was the depression era. His family survived through farming, fishing, hunting, and raising livestock for meat. The rabbits had been raised for food. He may have even pointed that out to me.
Shortly after the rabbit dinner, my beloved hen, Micky, stopped laying eggs. This time my father talked to me about it. “No sense feeding a hen that doesn’t lay eggs. It’s time for her to go.”
I frantically searched for a way to convince him otherwise. Could I offer to pay for her food? No, I didn’t have any money. What if I took her and ran away?
I happened to catch sight of Suzy, Dad’s faithful English Pointer, lying on an old coat of Dad’s. “My Micky is like your Suzy,” I blurted out. “She’s a pet.”
Dad’s arched eyebrows raised high.
“She’s also like your pet crow,” I continued frantically, “the one who stayed in our garage, the one you taught to say a few words.”
“And like those two owlets you and your brother raised. Remember? The ones who would see you pull your rifle off the shelf and get so excited their wings would flap like crazy. You loved those owls, just like I love Micky.”
Dad rubbed his hands on his worn pants. “I’m not making any promises.” Ever active, he strode off to weed the garden, fix the tractor, muck the chicken coop, or mow the grass.
My father never did butcher Micky, and she lived for several more years. Sadly, when my father was only 55, his once vigorous body failed him. He spent months lying in a hospital bed, probably feeling useless.
I wonder if he ever thought about the old hen he had saved for his little girl. Did he realize the joy this small act of kindness brought, a joy so great his daughter would remember it 50 years later?
The old hen, it turns out, earned her bucketful of grain. She taught a valuable lesson about the power of small, loving gestures. Thank you, Micky.