“My Chickens"

A Memoir by Alice R. Martin

Every summer during my childhood, my mother had to attend the State University at Cortland in order to study for her master’s degree in teaching, and so she dumped me over at her sister’s in Van Etten, New York. 

Aunt Treva was a nurse at the county home, and once in a while she’d take me into the nursing home for a visit. However, most days when she had to go in to work, she left me at a chicken farm close by. 

The farm was run by Esther Matthews and her husband, Roy. Besides watching me, she took care of her three sons and her niece. Throughout the day, various chicken activities took place. 

They would chop off the heads of chickens that they wanted to cook for supper. On top of the stove was a huge boiling kettle of water which was used to take the pin feathers off the carcasses. The smell of the boiling chickens with feathers was the most disgusting smell that you can ever imagine. We would all avoid the house on pinfeather days. 

Esther had three boys, so she seemed to enjoy combing and cutting my hair and that of her niece, Marie. This particular niece had a heart defect, and most of the time had blue lips and needed to rest a lot. 

Nevertheless, we all found the time and energy to jump into the creek nearby on the hot days of summer.  Then we’d come home and listen to the 45s on the record player: Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” “The Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and so on. 

Meanwhile, Esther was using her cigarettes to burn off the leeches that had attached themselves to our bodies in the creek. She just took it for granted that we would come home with a few of those black animals. They probably were miniaturized copies of the sea lampreys that attach themselves to the fish in the Great Lakes. 

Cousin Marie died one year when she was about 8 years old. I remember relatives saying that she died during heart surgery. 

One year I went into the backyard at Aunt Treva’s to call her husband Verner, who was from Finland, into the house for supper, but he didn’t move. I ran in to tell my aunt, and she came out and yelled “He’s dead, he’s dead!”  I thought she was talking about her next-door neighbor’s cat, and started crying for the cat. They sent me across the street to a stranger’s house for a few days while they made funeral arrangements and called my mother back from SUNY Cortland for the funeral. 

I took the Greyhound bus from Van Etten to Cortland every weekend, with a tote bag of comic books and snacks and a few clothes. The bus drivers would make sure I changed to the right bus, and made sure my mother claimed me when we arrived at Cortland. 

Mom roomed with my cousin, Diane Van Boxtel —her niece — while they both studied for their teaching degrees. Every weekend they would have outings planned for me. We drove up to the Saint Lawrence River and took a boat trip, passing by the islands and castles. Sometimes we would hike the trails at local parks, which had waterfalls. There were strawberry festivals and covered dish dinners. Aunt Treva would take me to visit lots of her friends; they gossiped over coffee and cookies. One of her good friends was Mary Lindblad, who had several daughters, including Suzie. 

Suzie had the knack of having an incredibly good time with no money or resources. Every minute of her life was a party. Both she and Mary died of kidney failure, Suzie at an extremely young age. Suzie left behind a son, Mike, and daughter, Melissa, Missy for short. It’s so wonderful that I can be Facebook friends with both of them these days. 

Aunt Treva became more and more confused over the years as I visited her, and I had to take over her accounts, help her write a will and set up a funeral fund, clear out her house, get her into a nursing home, and take care of all of her affairs. The irony is that she ended up in the same nursing home in Elmira where she had been in charge of a whole floor as a nurse. She just acted like she was still a nurse, rolling bandages, etc. 

At the end of one summer when I was getting ready to return to Sagaponack after staying with my Aunt Treva, I decided to take a chicken home with me. I think it was called a Rhode Island Red, but it actually was a black chicken. When we got home, we used a plywood playhouse in the garage for its coop. My chicken would hop up onto my arm and make special chicken noises, imitating me. 

Other local people gave me another chicken and a Banty rooster. He was supposed to help the chickens have baby chickens. I really didn’t know how that would happen, since I was about 9. I was a bad chicken mother, forgetting to feed them and not breaking the frozen ice in their water dishes. My mother hated the chicken droppings that were all over the breezeway and yard, since I let the chickens roam free. 

One day I came home from school and discovered that the chickens were all gone. My mother had given them away to my uncle Gilbert Rogers, who owned a chicken farm on Main Street in Sagaponack, a few miles south of our house. My parents took my sister Phyllis and me over to Uncle Gil’s that night for supper. What do you think they brought out steaming from the kitchen? Roasted chicken dinner! I ran screaming from the room and never forgave my mother for giving my special chickens away. 


Alice Martin’s family dates back to the mid-1600s in Sagaponack. She lives in Riverhead.