By Jennifer Doyle
As far as introductions go, this one was memorable for me. Meeting the ex-wife of your new boyfriend, with whom you are now co-parenting kids, is a little bit nerve-racking, to say the least.
Was I nervous? Hell, yeah. I wanted her to think I was capable of helping to raise her kids. That I was reliable, responsible, punctual, and well-mannered. I felt like I was going to be interviewed for a very important job as a nanny. Little did I know I would be tied to this woman with this memory for the rest of my adult life.
We were different in every way. I drink coffee, she drinks tea; I enjoy sugar, she likes agave; I like a neighbourhood, she lives off-grid.
My boyfriend (now husband) and I were renting a small suite in the lower level of a gorgeous house on a hobby farm. The landlords were good friends of ours, and recognizing that as a family we were literally starting out fresh, they welcomed us into their home and shared the bounty of their garden and cherry trees, farm fresh eggs, and support.
The house sat on an acreage overlooking a pasture, with several cows that my beagle liked to bark at over the fence, and a horse that would eat sweet apples out of my hand. There was a chicken coop with an automatic door opener and a greenhouse with broken panels on the roof that let in just enough rainwater. There was a raspberry bramble and a pigpen.
I loved going into the coop in the cool mornings to collect fresh eggs, a silent Easter egg hunt for treasures that were found in the funniest of places; on top of the roost, under a bucket, nestled in the wood chips. I loved plunging my hand into the feed bag to give the chickens some treats. I loved the gentle bawwwwk bawwwwk that greeted me as I fed them scraps from our table. I loved that while most of the chickens ran towards the fence to get the treats, one always ran away from me towards the coop.
This chicken was the smart one, knowing that it had to run through the coop to get closer to me when I collected the eggs. I always rewarded this chicken with the best scraps. Melon rinds were her favourite.
The backdrop was of mountains that were kissed by snow in the fall and winter and vivid greens and blues in the spring and summer.
The garden was filled with veggies, the raised beds bursting with bounty and fed by a secret concoction of brewed cow poop stolen from the neighbour’s field, a nutrient-rich patty that mixed with rainwater would feed the garden all summer long. Stinky but effective in producing the biggest, brightest tomatoes, the longest, crunchiest cucumbers, and the tallest rows of corn stalks. The compost pile ripened in the sun, breaking down to feed the worms that would, in turn, feed the garden. The raised beds were rimmed by blueberry bushes, enough to make many jars of jam that would capture the flavour of summer for the entire winter to be enjoyed every time one was opened. It was a colourful addition to a charcuterie board, with local cheeses and crackers nestled in fresh green grapes to enjoy with some local cider. Rows of garlic greeted me as I opened the gate to the garden, a symphony of colours sat in every bed.
This was a whole new world and I welcomed the experience.
I was dressed in my farm favourites. Having moved recently from the city I wanted to look the part: cut-off jean shorts, white linen shirt, and I plunged my newly painted toenails into my bright yellow gumboots. I popped on a wide-brimmed lady gardener straw hat to complete the look.
The owners were going to be away for the weekend and had asked for some help with the animals. I quickly agreed and was then given a verbal lesson on how to care for the new chicks.
Anyone who has ever grown up on a farm, or in a farming community, will probably think the next part of this story is a joke. But I kid you not, this was an honest request from an honest woman. I was asked to wipe the chicken’s butts.
I was told that the baby chicks might get sick if their little butts weren’t kept clean. So I was to get some warm, soapy water, hold the chick gently to not startle it (startling could cause their tiny little hearts to stop), dip their little butt into the warm soapy water (one-by-one), and then wipe clean with a tea towel. I wondered if it was natural for chickens to be plunged butt-first into soapy water, and how this act wouldn’t startle them, but I was new on the farm and figured I better keep my questions to myself.
So naturally, I waited until I had some help with this task. Lassoing baby chicks is not easy on a normal day, throw in the fact that you need to hold them still, dunk their little bald behinds into a bowl of soapy water and wipe them clean with a tea towel…and I realized I had to share this experience with someone.
So as the story goes, the ex-wife showed up to drop off the kids and I was there with a soapy bucket and clean tea towel in hand, determined to make a good impression, and I asked her for some help.
We walked together down a grassy hill with kidlets in tow, their bright eyes watching our every move. How was this new relationship going to work? Was mom going to be mean to the new girl? Would she freak out and say, “Stay the hell away from my kids!”? Would she take charge by being bossy, or talk down to her as if she knew nothing?
Nope. She helped me wipe chicken butts.
We worked well together, a little awkwardly at first. Neither of us was sure how to catch a chick, let alone hold one still for the deed. I took the lead and asked her to hold the bucket. I took a deep breath, put my head down, grabbed the fattest little peeper (they were the slow movers), and quickly plunged the squeaker into the water. Eyes bulged, feathers flew…butts were wiped. We worked into the afternoon, taking turns grabbing the chicks and cleaning their little bottoms until they were literally squeaky (or squeaking) clean.
I asked her not to ever speak of what we had done. I was still feeling like we had been part of a cruel prank, that if word got out that I had actually followed through wiping a chicken’s bum, I would be the laughing stock of the community. A reliable parent, I would never be.
I’ve been keeping this story to myself, embarrassed to share but after almost fifteen years co-parenting with this woman, I know now is the time. We’ve since navigated different opinions around car seats, sugar (the dreaded brownie incident is another story…), university choices, vitamins, and vaccinations.
That day the kids saw two women learning how to work together in an awkward moment. We were kind to each other, not judging, not mean, not horrible. We survived. And so did the chickens