Our Lives

Our Lives: First things first

February 22, 2014 

JohnValentine.AL.050213.JEL

John Valentine.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

Occasionally I’ll hear my mother’s voice.

Though she died 10 years ago, she’ll be whispering a reassuring phrase or proverb. She usually had a saying to suit every situation, as if those words would get you through.

She wanted to believe and wanted me to believe that it was that easy, knowing of course that life sometimes wasn’t as simple as a mother’s handed-down moral.

Her mother had died when she was a young girl. All of a sudden she assumed much of the household’s management. She had a strong, if not rigid, religious background until then, and I imagine her searching for meaning and guidelines to figure out her new circumstances. I imagine she clung to every word and phrase she remembered her mother telling her in the warm safety of their kitchen and home.

And those simple sayings became the backbone of her parenting of her siblings and years later, my sisters, brother and me. “A stitch in time saves nine,” no doubt, Mom! We grew up in Vermont; she was always knitting us mittens, hats and sweaters. At least that’s what we first thought that proverb was about.

“Good things come in small packages.” A huge childhood memory around birthdays and over-anticipated gatherings. “Honesty is the best policy.” That one was no fun to hear for sure.

But no proverb had more impact on her firstborn than the one I hear every spring, “First things first.” As a young girl and then a young parent of four children, my mother needed an order to her world. There were children to get out the door, meals to plan, clothes to mend, and always, coffee to make. When she was much older and slowed by illness, she would still jump up from her chair halfway through dinner and ask, “Who’s ready for coffee?” That was the correct order of things, the sooner the better.

So too I know, when it’s spring, you don’t just go outside, dig a hole in the ground and shove in the broccoli or tomato plant. You drink another cup of coffee? No, that’s not the moral of the story.

If I want – and I desperately do – juicy, red, ripe, slicing tomatoes on a hot day in July, I need to clean out the chicken coop on a cold day in February. That’s the introductory lesson, the very start of “First things first,” Gardening 101: feed the soil.

All winter long the chickens have been active, churning up greens, bags and wheelbarrows of leaves, and kitchen leftovers into rich, dark 6-inch-deep piles of compost. It’s there begging to be moved 20 feet away to the frozen tundra promise of the 2014 garden.

This is a job I know I have to do each year, and I have to do it myself. Like the kindergarten classic “The Little Red Hen,” everyone is very busy when it’s time for Dad to shovel out the chicken coop.

The talkative chickens keep me great company. They have opinions on everything – and why not? It’s their house. “Start in this corner, there are some good bugs and worms a few inches down,” and “Don’t put the water there, we’ll just kick dirt into it,” and “Close the door more. I thought we told you, we don’t like those dogs watching us.”

I nodded in agreement when the chickens started tweeting about the squirrels, their latest nemesis. This fall and winter, there were fewer acorns and hickory nuts due to the previous season’s hot weather. After they raided the bird feeders, the squirrels looked around for more seed sources. They found it in the cracked corn feeding trough in the chicken coop.

“First things first” defined the next weekend. The chicken coop was under siege. Other outdoor projects dropped down the priority list.

A battle ensued. As soon as the squirrels chewed a hole in the pine siding trimming my coop, I hammered on another layer of barn board. Several times in the last few months, I walked into a chaos scene simply going to retrieve the day’s eggs. The chickens would be flying all around thinking the hungry squirrel was after them, when actually it was just trying to escape that mean man who kept plugging their entry holes with steel wool.

A freaked-out chicken is not a happy chicken and doesn’t tend to want to lay an egg for anyone.

Last month when it got so cold in the evening, I was out in the coop often, ferrying unfrozen water. Once, I came upon a rare winter sight, three chickens lined up in a row, contentedly laying eggs in their nests. You would have thought they were at a spa.

I wanted to stick around to watch the daily miracle and wait for a very fresh, warm egg, but I tiptoed out the door, heeding the whispered advice, “A watched pot never boils.”

Valentine: johnvalentine732@gmail.com

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