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Widow’s Mite – A Christmas Story (part 2)

December 16th, 2008 · No Comments

Saturday morning came and Cora Lee’s chickens never entered my mind.  Christmas was just three days away and I had a hundred last minute chores still undone.  Sunday morning Ray asked the congregation to remember Cora Lee in prayer. She had slipped into a coma on Wednesday night.

When Ray mentioned Cora’s name Elaine and I glanced at each other with a look of alarm that quickly melted into shame.  We had forgotten Cora’s Chickens!  We sat through the service, sullen over our forgotten mission.

There was nothing we could do about it that day. Right after church we were driving to Elaine’s parents for a holiday get together. We wouldn’t get back home until late that evening. Monday was Christmas Eve; the day our little family reserved for dinner & gift-giving.  Tuesday was Christmas.  By Wednesday I would be back at work for three twelve hour shifts.  We had to get those chickens, I just didn’t know when.

We were both pretty glum in the car on the way to her parents that afternoon.  I told Elaine we would make time to get the chickens this week, even if we had to do it on Christmas day.  Resolved that we had an action plan, I felt better.  By the time we pulled into her parent’s driveway Cora’s chickens had left my mind again.

Christmas Eve took its usual warm and joyful course.  We ate too much, laughed plenty, and were caught up in giving and getting gifts.  Christmas day was quiet.  The kids were at their dad’s house and we were enjoying the peaceful aftermath of the holiday.

It was evening before the thought of Cora’s chickens came to me. A wave of guilt washed over me, I had forgotten again. When Elaine came into the room I said, “We forgot Cora’s chickens.”

“I know,” she replied.  “I was going to ask you at lunch but you were busy putting your new stereo system together; I didn’t want to stop you.”

“I promise,” I said.  “We’ll go first thing Saturday morning. Nothing else on the agenda; just Cora’s chickens.”

“Okay,” she agreed.  “Only please, we really have to this time.  I’m afraid they’ll all be dead.”

“Saturday morning, I promise,” I ended the conversation.

Saturday morning came clear, icy cold and windy.  This time Cora’s chickens stayed on my mind.  After breakfast I went to the garage to find a box we could put the birds in for the ride to their new home. My new stereo cabinet came packaged in a box that would work fine. It was a little tall, almost four feet, but it was about two foot square around the middle. I could lay it on its side and cut a trap door flap to put the chickens through.

By the time I finished, the box looked like a stubby cardboard coffin with a square porthole cut in the top; we would just lay the box on its side and lift the porthole flap and insert the chickens as we caught them.  I took my finished chicken box to the van and called for Elaine to come from the house.

Cora Lee’s house was down in Gap Hollow, about half a mile from the highway. The turn off for Gap Hollow lies on the highest ridge of mountains that run across the northern border of our state.  Just below the ridge top is a deep cut in the mountain running off to the left of the highway and down into a narrow gorge. At the bottom of the gorge is Gap Hollow.

The winter sun caught my eyes just below the shade of the van’s visor. I squinted through the glare looking for Gap Hollow Road where it climbed up to meet the highway.  Almost too late I spotted a smallish green street sign, “Gap Hollow Rd.” It looked as if it had been run over, up rooted, and then haphazardly planted back again.

I turned across the highway on to Gap Hollow Road and down into the narrow valley.  As I negotiated the steep, curvy pavement down into the gorge the low winter sun I had been fighting on the highway fell behind the mountain, leaving the valley below in a frigid shade.

As the angled grade of road relaxed into an easy slope near the bottom of the narrow valley we spotted a brick chimney, then the roof of a small house shoved into a cut below the road.

The road continued to fall and in a hundred feet it was met by a gravel drive.  The rusty black mailbox sitting next to the drive advertised “QUEEN” in faded store-bought stick-on letters. The mailbox had seen better days. Its metal post was cocked toward the house and the box had been bashed by a passing car at least once.

As we drove into the yard the gravel drive disintegrated into the sparse green of the yard.  Cora Lee’s frame house sat on concrete block piers.  Nothing protected the home’s underside from the icy wind other than a few meager boxwoods.  I thought that it must be nearly impossible to keep this house warm in the winter.

A covered porch ran across the front of the little house, crowded with an odd array of old furniture, appliances and cardboard boxes. The only sign of life, a rust colored bantam rooster perched on top of a vintage Sears deep-freeze, slowly turned his head and blinked at us as we emerged from the van.

We unloaded our makeshift chicken box and followed a path that wound around the house toward the back. A chicken yard, about 20 by 20 feet, stood behind the house. Its frame, made from iron plumbing pipe, was covered with a canopy of poultry netting.  On the far side of the yard sat a squat wooden chicken house with a nest box attached to its near wall.

Bodies of a half dozen chickens littered the ground inside the yard; most of them looked flat and decaying, not much more than bones and feathers, but one carcass looked fresh, as if the chicken had met it’s end in the previous night. A fox or some other critter had been at work.

Eight surviving hens, their feathers fluffed against the cold, perched on elevated wooden slats that ran the width of the chicken house. We found four more hens occupying the cubbies inside the next box, each still faithfully brooding a few eggs under her feathered spread.

We set our chicken box outside the wire and began retrieving birds. The little chickens offered no resistance; either they were used to being handled or too weak or cold to put up a ruckus.

After we had all twelve hens safely stowed in our makeshift transport, we looked around for any bird we may have missed. A few grains of cracked corn lay here and there inside the coop; a neighbor must have stopped by to throw the chickens some grain in the last few days.

On the far side of the yard a hole about the size of a saucer had been pushed up between the ground and the chicken wire. A wooden plank surrounded the yard’s perimeter but in this place the staples holding the wire in place looked as if they had been worried loose from the plank. The hole was easily big enough for a fox or some other smallish, determined predator to enter and exit.

Elaine and I, front and back, picked up our box of chickens and made our way down the path toward the front of the house. The weight of the birds inside the box shifted a little as we walked, but other than that the chickens made no objection to their being carried away. We slid the box inside the van, and got in.

I looked out the windshield to the shabby front porch. Mr. Rooster was still dozing on top of the deep-freeze. I got out of the van and quietly walked up to the porch to retrieve him. Like the ladies, he offered no resistance; these birds were accustomed to a human touch.

A slight commotion ensued when I lifted the flap to include the rooster with the flock, but they settled down quickly in the darkness of the box. We left the yard and the little house, driving up and out of Gap Hollow toward home; both of us silent, relieved we had finally kept our promise to Cora Lee.

When we arrived home we stopped at the road, pulled our box of chickens out of the van and carried them to our own chicken coop next to the barn. As we lifted the bantams out of the box they blinked and looked around at their new surroundings. A few of them eagerly scratched the ground for grain our fat birds had left over. One found the waterer and drank deeply; scooping its beak into the water and throwing its head back to swallow the captured drops.

In this cold, we attached a heating cable on the waterer to keep it free from ice; a luxury I’m sure these birds had to survive without during the last few weeks. Elaine threw some grain out and the little birds rushed to peck it up. The flock didn’t know which way to turn first; to the fresh water or the fresh grain.

Our big layers didn’t mind the newcomers a bit. Each new hen found its own place in the nest box or on the perch without much fuss from the others.

The roosters were a different story. We only had two; the big Rhode Island Red we kept for our layers and the banty newcomer I rescued from Cora Lee’s front porch. Our Rhode Island looked to have the advantage of weight and sheer power, but we discovered quickly that the courage and bravado of the little banty proved to be an equalizing force. In time the two established a nervous peace and managed their own harems with just the occasional flare up over territory or some other rooster claim.

We found out later that Cora Lee had passed away on the morning we went to get her chickens. I don’t know if she knew, or if something in her spirit was waiting for us to keep our promise, but she slipped away quietly that morning.

The cold snap ended eventually and spring came a week or two early to our part of the country that year. Cora Lee’s chickens became our chickens. They shared the coop with our big girls and became a part of the flock.

Although Cora’s chickens were the half-pints of the flock, they made up for size with the beauty of their plumage and the personality bantams bring to a flock of production layers. Feather footed Buff Brahmas, White Silkies, Red and White Cochins that look like downy puff balls, and tufted Araucanas, famous for their turquoise eggs.

The warming temperatures brought its yearly boon in egg production and Easter came along with spring. The kids dyed eggs as usual but this year a special prize stood out among our gaudy colored creations. Turquoise blue Araucana eggs, and half-size but beautifully ovate ivory Cochin eggs adorned our Easter baskets with a natural beauty we couldn’t approach with our food coloring eggs.

A good many Christmases and Easters have passed since the day Cora’s chickens came to live with ours. Those first twelve ‘ladies’ laid eggs and hatched chicks, and their chicks hatched chicks. We kept Cora’s banties and their descendants for years. Finally, when we had to move away for a time, we gave our flock to a lady who kept chickens and loved banties especially. I imagine she still has chickens passed down from Cora’s little flock. And I imagine that each spring, those girls still produce the same turquoise and ivory gems their great grandmothers thrilled us with.

*****

I don’t know that Cora Lee could have imagined the impact she had in our memories. I don’t think that was on her mind at all; she just needed someone to care for her chickens.

Nobody really knows the extent one person’s life can have on the lives of others. When you throw a stone into a pond it makes a splash and then waves radiate out from the center of its entry point. Those rings continue outward from where the stone entered the water. Sometimes the whole surface of the pond is moved by the splash of one stone.

Even a little pebble makes a splash. And its effect can radiate far beyond where it entered the water. Through those little chickens Cora Lee touched our lives and the lives of those she would never meet. How that one little splash continues to ripple I can only imagine. Cora Lee, like the little widow lady Jesus observed in the temple more than 2,000 years ago, gave what she had; that gift still radiates to touch lives today.

*****

I found my old Bible this week. The little crocheted cross is still there inside. It was between the pages of Luke 2. Verse seven had been underlined in pencil some Christmas past. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

I put the cross back in its place and closed the Bible. For right now I’ll keep it there; Cora Lee would have liked that.

Merry Christmas.

Tags: Church · community · Courage · faith · Fear · God's purpose · Heaven · joy · love · Obedience · peace · possessions · Prayer · purpose · Trust

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