The night before my mother died, she opened her eyes, sat up, and vomited her hospice dinner. I wiped her chin with trembling hands.
She whispered: “Honey, you’re already forty one. I should have taught you how to kill a chicken. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so afraid.”
I tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t start an argument. She fell back asleep.
“I don’t want to lose you,” I said.
She did not wake up, and stopped breathing at five a.m. Three hours later the mortuary attendants zipped her body, emaciated from breast cancer, into a rubber bag. I forced myself to watch—determined to prove to her how courageous I could be.
For the funeral, my husband Josh made a poster out of my favorite photo of her, taken when she was thirteen on her parents’ farm in North Dakota. In it, she’s smiling, wearing jeans. A cowboy hat tilts over one eye. Hens peck the ground by her feet, oblivious to the Jewish farm girl who took pride in cutting their throats with one clean thwack.
The rabbi from the funeral home, who’d never met my mother, conducted the service. I had fed him her story: the promise of freedom that led my Polish Jewish grandparents—who had never tilled a field—to cheap land in North Dakota, my mother’s birth and farm girl childhood; her senior year of high school adjusting to Minneapolis after the farm inevitably failed; her first love, which led to me; my father’s early death; her nursing career. When the rabbi mentioned my mother’s prowess as a kosher chicken butcher (there were no official shohets near the farm), I looked at the poster of her.
“Wimp,” her smile said to me.
My face grew hot; tears welled. I turned away and locked my arm around Josh’s. We were both Minneapolis born and raised, web designers whose closest ties to farming were our trips to farmer’s markets.
When we got home, I burst out crying, told Josh about my mother’s last words, the feeling that I’d failed her.
“You can always learn to kill a chicken,” he said.
He googled “chicken kill Minneapolis” and found Fresh Feather Organic Poultry Farm. They offered a class called “Total Chicken Preparation.”
“We could go together and learn to slaughter, pluck and clean in one session.”
The idea was unfathomable. I could barely stand to touch raw supermarket poultry.
All the next week I had nightmares. In each one, my mother ordered me to kill a chicken. I always failed: the chicken ran away; the knife was too dull; the chicken pecked my hands. My mother would cluck her tongue and say, “such a disappointment,” her real-life reaction to many of my life choices: to do drugs and party; to not choose a career in a helping profession, like a good Jewish woman—even a secular one—should; to not have kids. By the week’s end, I was exhausted.
I returned to Fresh Feather Farm’s website. Under the class description was a quote from a New York Times food writer: “The best way to be completely responsible for what you put in your mouth is to process your own meat.” I, too, needed to take responsibility—for silencing my mother’s voice.
The next Saturday, Josh and I drove the half hour to Fresh Feather Farm, a compound of aluminum Quonset huts and cement block buildings. Plump brown hens wandered in the newly mown grass. Behind a wire fence, turkeys picked at raspberries.
Our teachers, Mark and Mary Fleischman, whose sun-puckered, pink faces looked nearly identical, stood in the driveway while we parked, then led us inside a windowless building.
We donned rubber boots, gloves and aprons and entered the “Preparation Area,” a room with a drain on the floor and a large, steel, wheel-like structure that held eight upside-down traffic cones. In one corner, in a crate, sat four fluffy hens that our teachers called “The Broilers.” Mark Fleischman took one of the broilers out of the crate, grabbed her by the feet and held her, head first, in a traffic cone. The bird squawked shrilly and beat the air in protest. Feathers flew. When Mary Fleischman handed a knife to her husband, my throat constricted. I stumbled to a wall and leaned against it, short of breath. Josh tried to hug me. His big body blocked the air. Gasping, I ran out of the building.
Outside, I breathed in pungent fowl odor, and remembered a story my mother told me. One Yom Kippur on the farm, her aunt asked her to participate in Kaparot, a ritual where you wave a chicken over your head and recite a prayer that transfers your sins to the chicken. Then you kill the bird and give it away. My mother, though still a child, refused to participate. She said: “Why shouldn’t I eat the chicken myself? I’m responsible for my own sins.”
After a half an hour, Josh walked out of the extermination building holding up a pink chicken body in a plastic bag as if it were a trophy. “I’ll grill this tonight.”
“How can you eat something you just killed?”
Josh’s face turned red. “I thought you wanted this.”
I hated him then.
When we got home, I asked Josh to put the chicken in the freezer. “How about another night?”
The next day, while Josh was out running errands, I opened the refrigerator, hid the frozen carcass under my shirt, walked twenty blocks to a trashcan, and slipped the bird in.
I told Josh I had donated the chicken to the Second Harvest food shelf.
“It’s for a good cause,” I said, and offered to make us lentils for dinner.
That night, while undressing for bed, I was horrified to see a red blob of frostbite on my stomach.
“What’s that?” asked Josh, already in bed. I wanted to blame him, my mother and the chicken for the swelling. I couldn’t.