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September 11, 2006

Still Life with Chickens: A Recommended Book

I like books that name the concrete things—the resources—it takes to make a life. I also like books about starting over. Thus, The Boxcar Children. And, a more grown-up version of starting over: Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea. The memoir, written by Catherine Goldhammer, and published this past May, describes Goldhammer’s move, newly divorced, with her 12-year-old daughter, from a spacious house in an upscale neighborhood to a small cottage on a pond near the ocean.

She did not, she tells us at the outset, have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. What she had was her cottage in a town on a peninsula wedged between the Boston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, a town she describes thus—

Once the home of a large amusement park with a famous roller coaster, it had developed haphazardly, with recreation rather than posterity in mind. Big houses sat cheek by jowl with tiny ones, shoehorned together on tiny streets. Some of them were beautiful and some of them were decidedly not. The seaside lawns tried valiantly to be green, but they were small, and some of them had remnants of the amusement park in them: an oversized pink teacup with bench seats, a faded turquoise bumper car.
Goldhammer’s memoir is filled with vivid tangible named things:

That oversized pink teacup

A large salt pond

A new coat of off-white paint

Wood floors

Dragonflies

And, of course, chickens

Specific chickens—

Rhode Island Reds

A Silver Laced Wyandotte

A Light Brahma called Big Yellow

And then all the supplies needed to take care of those chickens—

A brooder light

A rope

Vinegar

Peroxide

A refrigerator box

Duct tape

A utility knife

Hardware cloth

A handsaw. . .

Here’s something else I like about Still Life with Chickens—Catherine Goldhammer is as resourceful as those boxcar children. She makes do. She does not, for instance, have that year in Provence. Nor does she have a table saw. At one point in her story, she sets out to make a particular kind of chicken run—a triangular structure called an ark. Before she builds the ark she names what she needs: a table saw, an electric miter saw, and sawhorses. Then she acknowledges that she has none of these things. What she does have: a dull handsaw, a right angle, a pair of green plastic chairs. She makes do. All in the company of six chickens who cause her at times to question her sanity.

But then—the eggs. Page 112.

Eventually we got blue eggs and green eggs, pink eggs and brown eggs. We got whitish eggs, speckled eggs, freckled eggs, and eggs with white patches. We had one enormous egg with two yolks, and a wide variety of other sizes: small and oval, big and round, tall and thin. Sometimes I found eggs that had just been laid, warm and slightly damp. Finding a warm egg felt miraculous. Putting a warm egg into someone’s suspecting hand was like handing them the moon.
Ah, the eggs.

Unlike The Boxcar Children, there’s no rich grandfather who steps in at the end and makes everything easier. That’s one of the things I like about Still Life with Chickens. It’s one of the things that makes it a grown-up book. And ah—those eggs.

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Comments

To Catherine for your gift of Still Life with Chickens: Much gratitude for sharing your experience. It is important to connect with others in vulnerable moments in time. I am going through my own upheaval; divorce, the current economy and not earning what I used to, change in my role as a mother as my children go off to college.
I read Still Life while waiting for a free mammogram funded by a non profit for women who did not have health care insurance. This book made the 6 hr wait so enjoyable!!
This is one book I intend to pass on to my own Moon sisters.

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