With snow on the ground and Thanksgiving approaching, Mother’s attention turned to harvesting the ducks and geese that she had shepherded since spring. It was not something she looked forward to, but not because of the labor involved.
Although the Muscovy hens hatched their brood, the responsibility to hatch goslings fell to Bantam and Leghorn setting hens. Bantams comfortably set on three eggs and Leghorns, five. They were kept in the smoke house, which in winter and early spring was used to smoke bacon, ham and sausages, and fed shelled corn throughout the ordeal that lasted four weeks.
Mother watched over hatching eggs, helping the newborns escape their shell and bringing weak goslings into the house to be wrapped in towel warmth. She saved most and lamented when she could not. It was much the same reaction when a piglet from the tail-end of a litter died despite stove-top care.
The hens and their broods moved to lightweight chicken-wire-and-board pens that included protection from rain and predators, which included cats, hawks, mink and other vermin. The pens were moved weekly so the birds could access fresh grass.
The Leghorn mothers were soon made obsolete by the rapidly growing goslings, which soon joined the adult flock. The gander — a fellow adept at sneak attacks on adults and children — earned distain and wishes that he would be the first to go come winter.
It was my responsibility to keep track of the flock, which was drawn to the dangerous creek located several hundred yards from the house. The flock, like cows who escaped pasture fencing, picked the worst times to wander. Bringing back the flock from the creek at dusk, when mosquitos and gnats were at their fiercest, was tedious.
Mother needed the geese as much for their down feathers as their meat. She worked feverishly to wash the down and dry it in cloth bags on a line stretched along the furnace’s width. It was crunch time, given that pillows were intended as Christmas gifts for granddaughters and those married during the year. The gifts were from her heart, which made them extra special.
Mother, angry when the flock of geese invaded the garden and spent a night creating a mess on the cement outside the front door, nonetheless could not wield the axe against them. Dad, despite protests that he was too busy, was commandeered for the task. Unlike when beef and hogs were taken down, he did not relish the job.
Dressed fowl was gifted to the milk hauler, the mailman and others. In return, cheese and butter were left on the bulk tank, and the mailman left a Christmas card. Goose — along with turkey and ham — was served on the holiday table. Fights, usually settled by Dad’s fork, erupted over who would get the gizzard, neck and liver.
Grease, which would be reused for other purposes, filled the huge baking pan. Much different than bacon grease, it added something to baked goods. Mother, like so many housewives who had heeded the government’s call to donate grease to help with weapon production during World War II, stored it in a coffee can next to the stove.
Mother decided on a long-ago Thanksgiving eve to buy a live turkey from a neighbor. She strung it up on a machine shed rafter with her small children in tow. It was, she admitted later, a bad decision.
The incident did not stop me from doing the same with a turkey we raised when our three children were small. Rachel and Sarah begged me when the day came to let the turkey live because they had named it and it was a pet. A lecture about the need to eat what we had raised did not stop their tears.
I would not and could not make the same mistake. Tom the ill-fated turkey is unfailingly mentioned around the Thanksgiving table.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.