Surprises

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From Jane's World

When I hear the words “Come, there’s something I want to show you,” my heart rate speeds up. Anticipation washes over me, starting at my feet and bubbling out the top of my head—or so I imagine.

I have said these words to Dane before showing him a hoard of round turtle eggs in the back pasture uncovered by a flood, the bright orange beaks of baby swallows waiting for their mom to come feed them, or the magnificent Queen of the Prairie flowers I once stumbled upon in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

Dane has said these same words to show me a huge snapping turtle that made its way to my mailbox, a Little Free Library in the middle of nowhere, or the first pasque flower of the season, hidden in a nook on his farm.

On a quiet morning about a year ago, when my valley was still heavy with fog, the grass wet with dew, and spider webs glistening, I was busy with morning chores when Dane walked up from the creek saying those intoxicating words: “Come, there’s something I want to show you.” He grabbed my hand and together we walked through tall grasses, over logs, branches, and rocks that were out of place since the recent flooding, dodging the ducks and geese that were following along, curious as to where we were going.

Dane was pointing toward the ground. I had to look twice before I glimpsed a patch of orange peeking out from under heavy green vines. I squealed with excitement, “Pumpkins!” I hadn’t planted pumpkins. As Dane uncovered more pumpkins my excitement grew. “Where did these come from?” Dane pointed out the ever-growing compost pile from Louisa the pig and the ever-growing flock of ducks and geese that hang out there. Volunteer pumpkins, compliments of my pumpkin-eating animal family!

We each carried a smooth, perfect pumpkin back to the house and set it on the porch rail. Later we took the wheelbarrow back to gather the rest. These unexpected pumpkins were one of my greatest highlights of 2016.

I've been eagerly watching the compost pile this spring and summer, waiting for new volunteers. First come the telltale vines, next the beginnings of the sweet flower, until finally a full orange blossom appears.

For the first time since living here, I mowed a path to the compost pile, ultimately ending at the little pool in the creek we call the Hidey Hole. Faithfully I’ve followed that path this year, in downpours with my rain jacket keeping me dry, through the mud with my rubber boots protecting me, and on gorgeous sunny mornings still in my favorite red house slippers.

My drives this fall—to and from work on Highway 56 toward Richland Center, or in the other direction heading out to Sidie Hollow for a hike, or going through Coon Valley on the way to La Crosse—have been rich with sightings of pumpkins for sale. Pumpkins in the back of old trucks, pumpkins on flat wagon beds, and pumpkins in enormous corrals made with wood frames. Usually they are priced by size: one dollar for the smallest, three bucks for the largest, and two for anything in the middle.

I find myself tempted to stop when I see all these roadside pumpkins, but there is no need. I feel like I’m going to burst with the secret anticipation of this year’s compost-pile pumpkins. I imagine joyful pumpkins flying out from the top of my head as I do the happy look-we-have-pumpkins dance.

On my most recent walk down the now somewhat overgrown path, I can hardly keep from skipping. Today I’m sure there will be pumpkins. I can see the patch, the twisted green vines, and the deflated orange pumpkin blossoms, but I still can’t see the pumpkins. I search high and low, under and over, and to the other side of the compost pile. No pumpkins.

Slowly it dawns on me: Louisa has managed to re-eat all her recycled pumpkins before they became adults. Like the blossoms on the vines, I feel myself deflate. I try to remind myself, as I slog back up to the house, that this too is a surprise. I smile, thinking of what kind of fence I'll need to put up next year and how surprised Louisa will be when she finds it.

Originally Published October 19th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Bee Alert!

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Excerpt From Jane's World

"As we all started to breathe more easily I had a moment to reflect. It’s impossible to know what each day will bring when living a life surrounded by life. Most days here are peaceful, with the goats and Louisa hanging out under the crab apple tree, the ducks and geese splashing in the hidey hole, Téte napping in her wicker chair on the porch, the cats snoozing on the woodpile or in their baskets on the swing, and the donkeys lying side by side in a sunny spot in their pasture."

Read the rest of this story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout or wait to find it in Jane's next book! 

Originally Published October 12th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Cheaters by the Dozen

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From Jane's World

I’ve sat on my reading glasses, stepped on them, and accidentally kicked them across the room. Finnegan, my rat terrier mix, has mistaken my reading glasses for teething toys ever since his razor-sharp permanent teeth came in.

I’m not good at hanging on to glasses. I think of Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I buy a pair of cheater readers, I misplace them. I buy a pair of glasses, I break them. My friend gives me her not-strong-enough readers, and Finn destroys them.

I’m known to walk around patting either the top of my head or the front of my shirt, groping for my glasses. I’m perpetually in motion, searching for them—which brings to mind Newton’s first law: An object in motion stays in motion until acted upon by another force.

My eyes are becoming weaker as I age. I can no longer read recipes without my reading glasses. I’ve ruined meals by adding 1 3/4 cup water when it should have been 1 1/3. My first pair of readers had a strength of 1.0. I’m now at 4.0. I fear the end is near.

I spend an obscene amount of time looking for my glasses. I run from my office to the kitchen, into the bathroom, over to the couch, out to my car, downstairs to the washer and dryer, and, worst-case scenario, to the pig or duck pen, trying to figure out where I left them. I don’t want to hang them on a chain around my neck. I had one once—it made me feel like I was choking, and I took it off. It is lost now too, never to be found.

Recently, when I was about to dump and refill the duck’s water bowl, my glasses plopped off the top of the head and into the bowl. Did you know ducks can fill a bowl full of mud quicker than you can misplace your favorite reading glasses? Good thing the hose was already on.

Later, I turned around to flush the toilet and plop, in they went, this time from the front of my shirt. In high school, I tried archery and could never even get close to hitting the target. My accuracy for dropping my glasses into feed, water, toilet, and fish bowls astonishes me. 

I went to a real eye doctor once. He told me I could continue to get away with readers or I could get a pair of bifocals that I’d keep on my face. I figured there was less chance of losing glasses that stayed on my face, so I gave it a try. Wrong—three days and they were gone. Lesson learned. I’ve been a cheap cheaters convert ever since.

I’m notorious for buying multiple pairs of glasses. I always buy the cheapest ones I can find, and I never bother trying them on in the store. Dane asked me why I don’t try them on before buying. I answered, “I don’t care what they look like on me.” Boldly, he replied, “I do. I’m the one that has to look at you.”

A store in La Crosse sells six pairs of decent-looking glasses for $12.99. I find it maddening because they offer three different packaged assortments, and each package contains exactly one pair that I like. This makes for a long-drawn-out decision process that Dane would rather not witness. The last time we came home after one such ordeal he marched over to the calendar, pen in hand, looking smug.

“What are you doing?” I asked. 

“Marking six pair of glasses on the calendar. I want to see how long it takes you to lose or destroy them.” Funny guy, that Dane.

Later, pulling out of a parking lot after taking the pups for a hike, we heard a disturbing loud crunch. I opened my door and Dane opened his. We both walked to my side of my car, and there was the best pair of glasses in that bunch I had just bought, lying on the pavement. They were a beautiful dark aqua blue that reminded me of the Caribbean. Now they were crunched beyond recognition. I’m in the habit of leaving my car keys on top of a tire so I don’t lose them on the trail. I had set my new glasses there with them for safe keeping.

Dane looked at me, held up the index figure of his right hand, and said, “One down.” It was a quiet ride home. He marked it on the calendar when we got there.

Dane has found my glasses under his car seat, out in the pasture, and sitting on a fence post. I’ve found them under my car seat, in the lining of my winter jacket, and on top of the garbage can that holds the duck feed. I’ve not only laundered my glasses, I’ve also put them through the dryer. I’m shocked when I find them intact among the clean laundry. I’m thrilled when I discover them lying on a trail in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. I always stop and look down, thinking, could those be my glasses?

If I had an engineering background I’d get busy designing a device that would beep and blink when I misplace my glasses. Like those clap-on, clap-off lamps, all I’d need to do is clap, then follow the beeping and flashing to my glasses. Once it was perfected, I’d sell the patent and become rich. There’s a whole lot of bad reader glasses karma out there.

A friend told me about the dollar store, where she buys her reading glasses for a buck. A buck! The next day I drove there, and sure enough, one dollar for a pair of cheapo readers. A perfect price to pay when you couldn’t care less how they look on your face and you know they’re doomed to a short existence anyway.

My house is now well stocked with reading glasses. Two near the computer, a pair in the bathroom, another upstairs in my bedroom, one in the kitchen, and one more on the end table in the living room. I even have a pair in the car—or at least I did last Monday. Today is Sunday. Two pairs left and counting.

I wonder if I’d qualify for eye surgery. In the long run, I think it would be cheaper.

Originally Published October 5th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Unsolved Case of the Little Free Libraries

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Excerpt From Jane's World

"Unlike Dane, I was fully prepared to snoop. I didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew books by flashlight under my bedcovers for nothing. I was born for this mystery. After all, forty dollars is a lot of money and someone would be happy to get it back."

Read the rest of this story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout or wait to find it in Jane's next book! 

Originally Published September 28th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

My Life as Fiction

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Excerpt From Jane's World

"Once I spent a whole day spitting out cat kibble. I got most of it out with the first few spits, I then swished my tongue around my teeth and gums, searching and cleaning as I went. Still, my mouth felt dirty for what seemed like days. No amount of water or even chocolate milk seemed to help."

Read the rest of this story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout.

Originally Published September 20th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Sugar Madness

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Excerpt From Jane's World

"By the time I read about the Dutch Apple Waffle I was getting a virtual cavity. This waffle was topped with cinnamon apples, raisins and pecans, drizzled with caramel sauce, and finished off with whipped cream. Ahhh, this must be the bomb of the Belgian waffles series, I thought. If you ate that for breakfast you would be finished off, or close to it, for the rest of the day. I can’t imagine going to work after a meal like that. Certainly, I would need a nap, and probably a larger size pair of pants."

Read the rest of this story in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout.

Originally Published September 14th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Home Birth

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From Jane's World

To think I once called Dr. Miller, a local veterinarian, and innocently asked her, “How do I get my cat pregnant?” Dr. Miller is retired now. I can imagine her repeating this story to her friends on a golf course—that is, if she’s the golfing kind of retired veterinarian.

I wanted my grandkids to witness a birth, the way I did when our family’s Dalmatian, Kelly, was bred intentionally and had puppies. I like to think I learned a lot about life and nature while witnessing that blessed event. The gap in my understanding came from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to attend the actual hook-up. I did, however, get to supervise and even assist my dad when birthing day arrived. 

With so many animals coming and going at the Schmidt house, I learned a valuable life lesson. We are born and we die—a natural process which, although sad on the dying side, is nonetheless inevitable. Now, as an adult, I wanted to share this experience with my grandkids through an all-natural cat birth. I just didn’t know if I needed to schedule a hook-up like my dad did for our dog. 

With credit to Dr. Miller, she answered me simply, something like, “I don’t think you’ll need to do anything special, Jane. Just don’t do anything and wait a week, month at the most.” 

So I waited. I watched. And soon, without any interference on my part, Frida’s belly started to grow. Before you go any further in this story, let me assure you that I believe strongly in spaying and neutering all my pets. In Frida’s case, I had gone the extra mile and pre-announced her upcoming pregnancy to friends, family and neighbors. I was sure to have homes for at least six babies. 

Sadly, the grandkids weren’t here when it happened. One evening Frida seemed restless and I knew she was going into labor. I made her a nice soft spot to sleep that included her bed and a few blankets. When I woke the next morning I heard a soft noise—not a full-belly meow but a faint mew. I jumped up and headed straight for the bed I had prepared for Frida. It was empty. 

I listened and followed the mewing, and there she was, behind my clothes rack, with six tiny kittens—on top of a pile of my clothes. Frida had chosen her own spot for giving birth to her family. None of the kittens had their eyes open yet, and all of them were squirming to get the best position for nursing, while Frida seemed relaxed and content. If she’d had a cigarette she would have been smoking.

Moses, my five-dollar resale-shop dog, appointed himself guardian of the kitties and hardly let them out of his sight. Eventually I convinced Frida to bring her babies downstairs where it was easier for her, Moses, and me to keep watch on the rapidly growing kittens.

My announcements advertised “baby kittens, all-natural home birth, breastfed and adorable.” I soon found homes for all of them. Two went to friends, one to my neighbor, Dane and his mom took two, and I kept one whom I named Farley.

It’s been years since Frida passed on. Farley and Spike, one of the kittens Dane took, are the only survivors from this miraculous birth. I still don’t know who their father was. 

I’ve learned a lot since asking Dr. Miller how to get my cat pregnant. That’s why Monkey is with Grandpa Farley on the porch swing now, waiting anxiously for Lorca to come home from the vet where he went to be neutered. Maurice, a palmful of soft gray fur, who lived in a barn before coming here, is hiding inside the cat tower. I think he knows he’s next!

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Originally Published September 7th, 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Crazy for Books 

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From Jane's World

It’s happening, the event of the year that could last for four months while making my house look like a tornado hit. I’m cleaning and reorganizing my books, bookshelves, book trunk, and any stray books that have found their way under the couch or bed. A bulldozer would be useful, but I have only my arms and they can carry only so many books at a time.

If I have an addiction, it’s books. I buy books everywhere I go. I have favorite bookstores in many of the cities I enjoy visiting. Sometimes I even buy books online. 

I’m lucky to have a neighbor who will come over from her ridgetop to my valley to rummage through my books during this annual book cleansing craze. She typically leaves with a few bags and boxes full of books, some to read and some for the library at the school where she works. It’s the perfect situation for both of us.

When I decide the time is right for a book cleansing frenzy I become a bit OCD. My method of operation is to hold each and every book, look at the front cover and back, and make a decision as to whether I will ever read it again, want to share it with someone I think would like to read it, or should just let it go. Save, pass, or give away. Seems easy enough, but it can end up taking months. There are just that many books, and like rabbits they seem to multiply when I’m not looking.

My love for books started early. My mom would take me to the bookmobile every week when it was in town. Painted turquoise and white, it looked like the offspring of a school bus and an Air Stream. It had a step that would magically lower from the doorway when the bookmobile opened for business. 

Often my mom and I would be the first in line, waiting. When the step came down, it was still too high for my short legs to reach. That gigantic step up led me into a whole new world. I loved the look and smell of all those shelves lined with books upon books, and the round silver step stools on wheels to help us reach the ones above our heads. Almost as good as picking out my books was handing them to the lady who pulled out the card and stamped it. It was hard to be patient until we got home to start paging through those books.

I still feel the same way after spending hours picking out books from any bookstore I’m shopping at. If I could manage to read and drive at the same time, I would. Often, when I’m engrossed in a fascinating story, I find myself turning the book over to look at the author’s picture and reread the bio a few times.

When I think I’m almost done straightening out one of my three humongous bookshelves I realize I have at least twenty books stashed upstairs next to my bed. This is where it can get tricky. Which books should stay on my night table and which ones should come down the stairs? I decide calming books stay up, the rest go down.

When I ask my friend, a fellow bibliophile, for advice on how she organizes her books my jaw drops open as I listen: “I subdivide by genre first; then within genre, by sub-genre; within each genre or sub-genre, alphabetically by author; and for each author, chronologically by publication date.” 

My mouth starts to dry out and I quickly close it, but instantly reopen it to say, “You’re kidding, right? I organize mine by animal type.”

We both have a good laugh as I go on to explain that I have sections for books on apes and chimpanzees, birds, elephants, dolphins, dogs and wolves, and lions, tigers, and bears. I then go on to name other miscellaneous non-animal categories: books on Bhutan and Tibet, the trimates (sometimes called Leakey’s angels—Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas), dog sledding, mountain climbing, biographies and memoirs, other adventures, and my calming books (Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön and the like), which from now on will be kept upstairs. 

I can’t imagine living in a bookless house. It wouldn’t feel like a home. I’m not interested in ebooks, Kindles and such, although I’ve heard many people like the convenience. My books are my friends, some new, and some old. The ones I like the best are written in, starred, highlighted, worn out from rereading, have torn covers, and are beginning to yellow.

As the months pass and the floor near my bookshelves starts to clear, I’m appreciating the magic of written words. A good book, with a good story, is worth a house that sometimes looks like a hurricane hit.

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Originally Published August 31st , 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Rainy Day Traditions

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From Jane's World

There are certain things I do on rainy days and no other. The tradition started in Baraboo, Wisconsin, when Dane and I were camping at Devil’s Lake for my birthday. It has continued over the years despite mishaps and mayhem.

We crawled out of our tent that morning and, regardless of the gentle rain that was falling, decided to ride our bikes into town for breakfast: homemade German pancakes and applesauce for me, and a plate full of steaming pancakes for Dane. When we got back on our bikes, the rain was pouring down. I turned and said to Dane, with the hood of my rain jacket blocking part of my face, “It’s raining harder, we might as well go get tattoos.” 

“What?”

“It’s a great day for tattoos. Follow me,” and off I went on my bike. 

We found the tattoo shop, went inside, and started looking at all the flash art on the walls. We thumbed through the loose-leaf binders full of pictures of freshly completed body work that looked still red and angry. We had to use our imaginations as to how they would look once the swelling went down.

Eventually a man who looked like he may have been napping came out and asked us what we were looking for. Dane showed him an existing tattoo of an ouroboros and explained that he wanted a web with a spider inside that circle. I said I wanted a small, realistic painted turtle. The sleepy man scratched his head, looking perplexed, and went on to tell us, in detail that I’ve forgotten, why neither of the tattoos we were looking for would work. We decided he just didn’t want to work that day. Tattooless, we road our bikes back to our campsite in the rain. 

This was the beginning of a rainy-day tradition with a twist. Sometimes it might be a piercing instead of a tattoo, or perhaps a pedicure. I’d finished decorating my house, after all. Time to move on and decorate my body, and rainy days seemed to be the ticket.

Living in Wisconsin, with all the rain we’ve had, one would think Dane and I would be full of body art and holes. But we’re not—we practice control and moderation. And there always seem to be roadblocks to my best laid plans.

We’ve driven to La Crosse with the windshield wipers working overtime, only to have forgotten my driver’s license. Even if you look ninety years old and you just want your ears pierced or a tiny blue-jay feather below where your thumb and index finger meet, you’d better have ID. Rules are rules in the mind-altering shop that we sometimes go to...only on rainy days.

Occasionally pedicures replace tattoos and piercings. The first time we went for a pedicure Dane choose a bright red polish. I laughed when he went swimming at a public pool a few days later. Fellow swimmers seemed mesmerized by his pretty toenails.

About a month ago I woke up to a dreary day, and sure enough, it started raining. I quickly drove to La Crosse with my driver’s license secure in my rain jacket pocket. I was on a rainy-day mission: I needed to get the hole in my nose re-pierced. I had managed to lose my tiny silver stud when I had a cold. 

I sat on the table in front of the potty-mouthed piercing gal while she thrust my head upward with the palm of her hand to examine my nose hole. I tried to point to where the hole had been but she slapped my hand away and said, “Hang on there, Honey. I have eyes. I can see it.”

I waited and worried, for she seemed more agitated than normal. Before I could say, “Hold on!” her small blue-gloved hand was jamming a stud through the hole that had closed shut. I started yelping and she told me to stop it, that she was saving me ten dollars by not re-piercing but only forcing the earring into the flesh wound that had once been a real hole. “Ahhh!” I cried out, and “There! Done!” she answered back. 

I groaned as she used alcohol wipes to swab up the blood that was dripping from my freshly punctured nose. Damn, she was strong. And boy, could she swear! The torture master was proud that she didn’t have to charge me for piercing, only for the new stud. 

I was glad to get out of there alive with my nose still in place. Walking back to the car I let the rain fall on my face, hoping the coolness would soothe the pain. As I drove home the rain slowed to a trickle, and before I hit Westby the sun had come out. I would be content with a dry spell—at least until my nose healed.

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Originally Published August 24th , 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

The Life of Rudy

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From Jane's World

Rudy the rooster is long gone, but my memories of him aren’t. In fact, just now I’ve had the disturbing thought that he may have been gone sooner than I ever realized.

I remember sitting in the high school science lab, two to a desk. The top of the desk was a thick black counter top. If you turned your pencil over and used the eraser you could write on top of that black slab without doing any damage. Instead of chairs there were tall silver stools. Often I felt tipsy sitting on them because my legs weren’t long enough to reach the floor. The room smelled of formaldehyde on some days and Bunsen burners on others. There were Petri dishes, microscopes, and—my favorites—a skeleton and charts of the human anatomy.

I liked science class. I disliked the experiments with animals.

Looking under microscopes at slides of pond water and watching them come alive with amoebas and algae was life changing for me. Dissecting frogs was both thrilling and gross. I loved seeing and learning the internal body parts—intestines, liver, heart—but struggled with my sense of compassion for the poor frog. I recently learned that, starting as far back as 1988, some states passed a bill that allowed children an alternative to using real animals in their science lab. Too late for me, and not in my state anyway.

The day that sticks out in my mind the most from that time is the day I brought Rudy home. At the age of 91, my mom still remembers this day too. Rudy was another science experiment, but he was still very much alive!

I asked Mr. Hetzel what they were going to do with the chickens when we were done measuring them daily. I didn’t like his answer. While I knew I couldn’t save all the chickens, I resolved to save Rudy. Out the lab door, into my jacket, and home with me he went. 

My dad built a magnificent cage for Rudy to spend his nights in. It sat on the border of our property next to my dad’s perfectly manicured woodpile. 

In the daytime Rudy ruled the Schmidt yard. He sat (and pooped) on my mom’s beloved chaise lounge with its yellow-and-orange-flowered cushion. He rode in the basket on my bike. He chased the neighborhood children when they came into the yard. And, much to Mrs. Mahoney’s dismay, Rudy turned out to be a rooster that loudly announced every dawn, right outside her bedroom window.

I loved Rudy, and I like to believe my dad did too. No one else did though, so Rudy spent most of his time with the two of us. If my dad was working in the garage, Rudy was there keeping him company. If I was jumping rope, Rudy’s head was bobbing up and down, keeping time with the rope’s rotations. I thought it was funny when Tommy Mahoney tried cutting across our yard to get to the park, and Rudy went screeching and squawking after him. I swear I saw my dad chuckling too, more than once, when it happened. Maybe you can picture it: a small bundle of feathers chasing a boy ten times its size!

My mom became increasingly less tolerant of Rudy’s treatment of her chaise lounge. She also complained about his boisterous wake-up calls. I thought they were rather endearing—besides, who wanted to be in bed when night turned to light? But when the phone calls from Mrs. Mahoney started coming, I knew Rudy was in trouble. Turns out she found nothing endearing about living next door to a cantankerous rooster.

My dad and I did what we could to remedy the situation. We moved Rudy’s cage, we only let him out when we could supervise, and we even covered his cage with a blanket in the evenings to try to keep him quiet longer in the mornings. But even with these measures, Rudy wasn’t able to conform to the high standards of Mrs. Mahoney (or my mom), and the day came when my dad said Rudy would have to go live on my uncle’s farm.

This is where my memories get foggy. I know I went with my dad to the farm, and that Rudy was in a dog crate. I know I cried. I know my dad must have felt miserable for me. And I knew without a doubt that Rudy would have a lovely country setting with other chickens in which to live out his life. 

Forty-four years later, on a cool Sunday morning, I’m drinking my tea and reminiscing about Rudy with a pleasant half-smile on my face, when suddenly an unwelcome thought causes me to shudder. Did Rudy get the long life I had in mind for him? Or did dear Rudy become my uncle’s Sunday night dinner?

Originally Published August 17th , 2017 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout