I think I have five friends raising chickens this year. Not for show, but for the eggs and the chickens to eat. Most of these friends are living in very suburban areas and most are also raising vegetables in raised gardens. I’m all into fresh vegetables; but because of various and sundry reasons, I’m not growing a garden this year (mostly because I can’t get rid of the deer who eat my tasty little vegetable plants!) I am participating in a CSA box again, and we’ve been eating tender and delicious lettuce this month.
All this “back to Mother Nature” reminds me so very vividly of my mother. When she was a little girl, from age 4 up, she was responsible for the family’s chickens. She would tend to the chickens every day. My grandfather had a coop in the backyard of their very urban house in West End Atlanta. In fact, a lot of the people in the 1930’s in Atlanta had both chickens and what would later be called (during WWII) a ‘Victory Garden’ in their backyards.
They did it because food was expensive and labor was cheap. Food was hard to come by. My grandmother was a woman who never turned away anyone hungry. She prided herself on her cooking and on the bounty of her table. We had a running joke in the family about “eat aplenty!” because of cousins who would come and eat with my grandmother’s family and the dad would say “eat aplenty!” to his children. The unsaid part was “because we don’t know when we are eating next.”
When my great grandfather died in 1936, my great-grandmother moved in with my grandparents in a tiny little house off of Elizabeth Street. My grandmother was the oldest child of 9. Well, actually Gilbert was the oldest, but he died during WWI from Spanish Influenza. My grandmother Gladys and next oldest boy GT were the only ones who were married and independent. The house had 3 bedrooms, a dining room and a living room. My great grandmother slept with my mother and her younger sister. My mother’s three unmarried aunts slept in the second bedroom, my grandparents in the third and my three uncles slept in the living room. I don’t think the house had more than 1000 square feet. It had one bathroom but it was on a huge corner lot, so there was enough room for a large garden and the chickens.
One day an older and indigent black woman came to the house asking for food. She was all alone in the world, with no children and no family left. My grandmother fed her, gave her clothing and when she found out Vassie had no place to go, she made up the daybed in the Dining Room. Vassie lived with my family from 1938 until 1959. When my aunts and uncles married or joined the army and the house emptied out, Vassie got the third bedroom and my grandfather remodeled the bathrooms so that Vassie could have her own. I understand that my great-grand mother and Vassie were “as thick as thieves” and would sit elbow to elbow shucking corn or shelling peas. Vassie help keep the house, but as she grew older and her arthritis grew worse, she became my great-grandmother’s companion. Vassie died before my great-grandmother Belva and when she died, I think it broke Belva’s heart. Belva died less than a year later.
My grandfather worked for Southern Bell. He was a line-man and he help manage crews all over Georgia. There were times that my grandparents would leave the larger family in that house off of Elizabeth Street and travel to other parts of Georgia for a few months at a time. Exotic places like Moutrie and Macon. My grandfather would install long lines, test them and then come home. At one point, the line crews were going to be forced to lay men off. When the economy slowed down, there just wasn’t enough money. Men like my grandfather decided to take one furlough day a week to keep the 20 percent of their workforce who were targeted to be laid off working. That meant of course a 20 percent decrease in pay for everyone. It was a huge hit for my family. This was the reason for the vegetable garden and the chicken coop.
At one point, my grandfather chased a job all the way to the Sopchoppy river – to Apalachicola in Florida. There were some relative down there that they stayed with for a while, but when other jobs became available my cousins moved leaving my grandparents and my mother and aunt with no place to stay. My grandfather was sending home more money than he really could afford. They ended up living out of the Model T on the beach with no food, until my grandfather could be paid again. They lived on the beach for about a month. My mother would dig for periwinkles, my grandmother would search for cat-tails and daylilies. They caught hermit crabs and fiddler crabs. They survived until that paycheck. When there was money, they feasted and filled the Model T with gas and came home to Atlanta.
My mother never had a birthday party. There just wasn’t money. She never had birthday presents, new clothing or new shoes. She never could join Girl Scouts because there just wasn’t the money for the uniform or dues. She kept chickens and studied. When she was in High School at West Fulton High, she was not allowed to graduate with an academic diploma, but a “technical diploma.” She learned shorthand, accounting and typing. She had a piano she would play around on, but there was not money for lessons. When she graduated at age 18, she got her first job at Southern Bell. It was 1948. After a year of working as the secretary for the Engineering Department at Southern Bell, she applied at Georgia State College (now Georgia State University). It was known colloquially as “Lucky Street University” because it was located off of Lucky Street, not too far from where Martin Luther King Jr. was born.
Southern Bell was very forward thinking. They provided money for her to go to school. It took her 13 years to get her diploma, taking one class at a time at night. She graduated May 28, 1961. In 1964, my grandparents built their dream home in Marietta, Georgia on the land that had been in my grandmother’s family for generations. It had originally been deeded to Archibald McGarity as a part of the land taken from the Cherokee in the 1830’s. When I was a child, you could still see the remains of the log cabin that had been built by a Cherokee family and added onto by my family. My grandfather retired in 1964. He planted a huge garden for my grandmother, but they didn’t raise any chickens. He did raise some hogs and gave my dog Bear a good home. He died of a heart attack in December of 1968, as Apollo 8 was on its way to the moon.
I think of these things as I go through box after box of detritus from my grandparent’s house and my parent’s house. I found a box of cancelled checks from 1947 and I find myself unable to shred them. I don’t think I should keep them, but I can’t shred them. I have no idea what to do with them. I found checks where they paid on the mortgage for that house on Elizabeth Street. I found checks where my grandmother got cash to pay Vassie. I found checks where my grandparents tithed to their church – a real tithe of 10 percent of the gross. Even though they were not financially stable, they never stopped giving to the church. I found checks where they gave money to some of their brothers and sisters. Somehow shredding those checks seems like erasing all of them from my memory. I don’t want to forget their love and their generosity. I don't’ want to forget their struggle to survive in a world that looks much like the world looks today.
I think of the song “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and I think of the Great Depression. And I think I want to raise chickens.