Grandma Speciale was not a woman of science. Darwin’s charm was lost on her. “I’m a no related to no monkeys!”, she would say. She found it astonishing that anyone would have the gall to suggest it. On occasion, she would go quietly over to St. Edward’s for mass, down on County Road, when she could get a ride. Of course, her religious beliefs were closely held, as they were so surely divergent from those of her son-in-law and benefactor. All I knew was that Ave Maria made her weep every time she heard it play and I was aware that she was Catholic, whatever that meant.
She’d only been in school until she was fifteen back in Sicily, and her sense of the world and how it worked were hers and hers alone. Although she’d never studied birds or learned their proper care from books, she had her own special brand of bird science. Perhaps she had an edge due to having grown up on a farm. Certainly they’d had chickens there, maybe even ducks or turkeys. In any case, she had her methods.
It was often enough, during my young years, that Grandma would sidle up to show me her latest charge. She would find an abandoned bird’s egg and nestle it between her ample breasts in hopes of raising a hatchling. There, it was nice and warm. Surely birds did as much. This happened often enough to make it a distinct memory, although in truth, I cannot imagine it didn’t dawn on her at some point that she’d never had a success. She must have stopped at some point, but I can’t say when that was.
In any case, I remember questioning her as to the welfare of her latest orphan. Gleefully, she would show me the tiny orb, a lovely powder blue sometimes, sometimes speckled, sometimes not. The eggs seemed so tiny and delicate resting as they did in the folds of her weathered skin. They were warm and cozy and full of promise, at least as far as she was concerned. Once, when I raised a question of doubt as to whether or not this was likely to produce an offspring, and she countered with a logic I could not refute. “Shoo (sure), but I keepa them warm. Maybe they getta chance.” She was right. She was doing what she could, and it was better than nothing. How they stayed intact while she slept, I will never know. Perhaps she placed them beside herself under a lamp at night and replaced them in the mornings. Their safety was dicey, to be sure. One time when we were dancing the polka to one of her favorite records, we collided accidentally. We both stopped immediately, and looked at each other, knowing what had occurred even before we looked to check her décolletage. The poor smashed egg lay in shards surrounded by a gooey mess. She shrugged her shoulders resignedly, wiped up, and we resumed dancing, ready for the next egg that might come her way.
She also took it upon herself to try to rescue orphaned babies that had fallen from their nests. As far as I remember, she would make a concoction of raw egg mixed with ground beef, to which she added finely chopped lettuce leaves. She kept the little babies in a shoebox with shredded newspaper for bedding which she carefully changed several times a day. She would take a tiny ball of her secret recipe and spear it on a toothpick, conveying it to the baby’s open mouth. In response, the baby shook its wings with excitement and anticipation, raising it’s tiny wobbly head as far as it would go, crying out for what was coming. The moment the toothpick was within range, the little bird would snatch the food, gobbling it down greedily. Although some didn’t survive on this diet, at least one did, as was evidenced by the sparrow she’d had back in Mamaroneck.
Going to see Grandma was like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. It was always a surprise and always a good one. Well, almost always. One year, Debbie and I asked our mother if we could buy a little chick for grandma for Easter. We must have seen them for sale somewhere, and knew that our mother wouldn’t like to have one at our house. Accordingly, we brought the little thing to her in a little box we’d decorated in Easter theme, much to Grandma’s delight. It was a two-fer. Grandma got a healthy live baby to care for, and we got to go visit and see the chick whenever we could. It was wonderful for us all. We named the chick too, although I have forgotten its name. I do remember we had given the chick a boys name. Let’s call him Jacky. We went to see Jacky every week and he just grew and grew. Clearly, this time, Grandma had managed to feed him with something appropriate for chickens, because Jacky got bigger and bigger. She seemed to enjoy him well enough, but we loved rushing down Ridgeview to see him, as he was very friendly and so different from the pets we had at home. Eventually, Jacky had grown to a full size, filling his cage. Where once the cage was cavernous, now, he could just manage to turn around. At some point, I went down the street to see him again. Grandma welcomed me in and I went to the back porch where she kept him. The cage was empty.
“Grandma”, I cried, “Where’s Jacky?”
“I ate him.” she said simply, busy with something else, and clearly not understanding the import of her news.
I began to weep, horrified and heartbroken both, at the same time. This was her pet! Maybe he was a chicken, but he was a pet!
“Grandma! How could you do that?!!!”
“Whaddaya tink I’m a gonna do?”
“That is what we do with a chicken. We eat it.”
To her, it was a simple equation. You get a chicken. You eat it. That’s what she knew, and that’s what she did. In the land of limousines and gala balls, my grandmother took Jacky out of his cage, and in what must have been full view of the neighbors windows, she wrung Jacky’s neck (or worse) and plucked him. She was sympathetic when she saw my distress, but insisted that a chicken was food, and this was life, and not to worry myself about it anymore.
When I got home and told my mother and father, they burst out laughing. I didn’t see the humor in it.