Thirty years ago we moved into our present suburban home and quickly discovered that we were literally surrounded by four families all bearing the same last name. Three generations in fact. Mr. Perry Number One, as I think of him, the clan’s eldest member, borders our place to the north and is the focus of my story today called Mr. Perry’s Chickens.
For decades, Mr. Perry was notorious throughout town for the menagerie of ducks, geese and chickens that he meticulously cared for on his property. Whenever he whistled and talked to then, they’d respond in turn the way farm animals do. The geese would announce the arrival of every visitor who comes calling on Mr. Perry’s side of the hedge. Every now and then one of his exotic breeds of ducks would take off down the runway of his backyard, and, supposedly unable to fly like their wild cousin counterparts, would muster up enough head wind to clear the hedge and go flapping-quacking across our back yard and land with a thud, clearly out of gas, on the far end of our property. As a farmer in my younger years and having worked with many kinds of farm animals the whole enterprise of clucking, quaking, honking and the more than occasional crowing rooster was a symphony that I enjoyed greatly.
Yet it was Mr. Perry’s chickens, by my observation, that he clearly appeared to cherish the most. His days began and ended with feeding his pampered birds and cleaning their coop. Midday, if the weather was conducive, Mr. Perry could be seen sitting beside his garden and with a watchful eye giving his chickens free-range access to his entire backyard. Happy hens could be seen “dusting” themselves in a dry corner of his garden while the smart-Alec rooster was strutting his stuff to and fro. That scene was a steady midday ritual, until that is, when the hawks moved in and made our neighborhood their new home that came complete with a local delicatessen.
Mr. Perry, even while working in his garden just feet away was no match or deterrence for the silent fly-by snatch and go raptors. That luxury, for the chickens that is, soon became too costly. Fortunately, the chickens had a spacious and clean outside enclosure attached to their coop completely surrounded by wire as a safe-guard from any and all predators, with wings or paws, looking for an easy meal.
The realities of advancing age slowly took its toll on the mini-Perry farm next door. Reluctantly, but over time, Mr. Perry reduced his feathered population to just keeping chickens. And then, near his 90th birthday, Mr. Perry decided that the time had come to even let go of his beloved chickens. The coop, once a center of bird-chattering life and commotion, one day, was silent.
On our side of the hedge life rolled on. There were family gatherings to host, grandchildren whacking soft-sided baseballs and shooting “Stomp Rockets” off into the air. Occasionally some of the balls, Frisbees and rockets landed in Mr. Perry’s yard. A day after our family get-togethers Mr. Perry kindly lobbed them back into our yard. Once, one of the stray rockets landed cross-ways on top of the wire enclosure that once sheltered Mr. Perry’s chickens. I couldn’t quite reach it by stretching over the hedge, until the wind blew the Stomp Rocket down into the pen. Leaning over the hedge I had to fish around with my hand to extract the rocket out of the weeds that had quickly grown in where the chickens once clucked and scratched about.
Mr. Perry told me once that he missed “having a reason” to go down to his chicken coop during the day, which he said gave him exercise. But having had the pleasure of seeing this man over the years fuss over and tend to his feathered friends, I knew that what he really missed was more than exercise. I understood. And frankly, it was sad to hear.
When you work with animals and crops on farms there are sounds and smells that become embedded in the heart and memory even after leaving agriculture to pursue new careers. Earlier this spring, near dusk, I was retrieving misplaced playing balls around the hedges and bushes along our property line when I faintly heard what I thought was a familiar sound. I thought it was just me, running “old tapes” in my mind, until I heard the sound again, this time more clearly than before. I stood up and listened again, this time for a sense of direction. As I moved closer to the north side of our property, sure enough, I was hearing the collective little peeps of baby chickens coming from Mr. Perry’s chicken coop! The little shed was silent no more! A few days later Mr. Perry told me that he indeed decided to get more chickens. He said, “Got twelve pullets, two varieties, and one little guy, a rooster. I miss them.” I missed them too.
A week or so later I spotted Mr. Perry, in his 95th year, pushing his walker through his yard in the direction of his hen house. He’d push along, then stop and rest on the walker’s built in seat, and continue on like that until he reached the coop and entered through the squeaky wooden screen door. The little chorus of “peeps” were quickly changing from chirps and off-key clucks as the lone young rooster sounded like an eleven year-old boy uttering sounds in one pitch and ending his sentence in another.
Yesterday, Mr. Perry shouted out a hearty, “Hello neighbor!” with a wave to catch my attention. When I turned to look, he was—and get this— pushing an ancient manual push-mower with one hand and pulling his walker along with the other! He’d do this, mowing a patch of green grass about four-feet, then sit down to rest, and then get up and do it again.
“So what are you doing?,” I asked, as he leaned over to scoop the fresh-cut grass into a bucket.
“Get’n some salad for my chickens, He said. “They need somethin’ green in their diet every day.”
And I thought, he’s 95 years old, pushing a hand mower and feeding his chickens. Of course I am going to have a good day.
Text and images by K. Lee. And thank you also for visiting.