Easter season always brought a new crop of pastel-dyed live chicks to the Woolworth's stores, when I was a small child. We didn't understand the cruelty of this practice in those days. And seeing these adorable little creatures - nestled like fluffy bouquets of spring flowers in their glass cages - brought great delight to my younger brother and me.
We thought the chicks had hatched out of pastel-dyed eggs until we were set straight on this by our older siblings. One year my younger brother, Eddie, and I bought two of these little creatures, one pink and one pale green. They cost 10 cents each.
My mother did her best for them. They lived in a box under the stove with torn newspaper for a nest. We fed them on corn meal and crumbs. We checked on them frequently and loved them passionately for a few days.
Soon they learned to hop out of the box. They were always under Mama's feet. Sometimes she would pick them up and put them into the pockets of her big apron, while she prepared our breakfast. One such time, as we sat down to eat, she told us the following story - one of many she recounted of the "olden days."
"Children, I want to tell you all about your great-great-grandma, Becky Jane Hale, up there in the hills of Kentucky. During the Civil War she was a young widow-woman living on a farm with her four little children. She supported her family by selling her eggs and chickens and the milk from her cows. She grew corn and a few table vegetables. They got by.
"There were strange men roving around the mountains in those times. Rough men from two armies, the Confederate and the Union. You see, Kentucky was a neutral state and had men on both sides, and some on neither. Often these soldiers had gotten separated from their regiments, and were lost and hungry. They would come scrounging for food or money or whatever they could find. They would take anything they wanted without so much as a by-your-leave. Sometimes they burned crops in order to keep them from falling to the "enemy." Becky Jane kept a sack of seed-corn well hidden, in case her crops were ever burned.
"Now this happened in the fall of the year. The air was crisp and cold in the mornings. Believe you me, it gets cold up there in the hills! Becky Jane had started keeping her newly hatched chicks in a big box under the stove at night, just like we do. And just like ours, they would get out, and she'd find them running all around the kitchen in the morning.
"Often she would scoop them up and put them inside the top of her great big apron, a sort of pinafore with long sleeves and a belt tied around it. That kept them warm and out from under foot, while she cooked breakfast.
"Now on this particular morning, Becky Jane had gathered up her chicks into her bosom, and her young'uns were sitting around the table about to have their biscuits and milk, when suddenly...." (We all jumped and held our breaths.)
"Suddenly she looked up. Through the window she saw a bunch of ragged soldiers entering her farmyard. They kicked down the gate to her henhouse, grabbed her hens, one by one, and stuffed them into gunny sacks. They grabbed great-great-grandma's basket of freshly gathered eggs and headed for the kitchen, shouting and laughing about getting a good breakfast.
" 'I smell biscuits!' one of them yelled.
"Becky Jane made her young'uns stand behind her. She put her hand on the bosom of her apron to quiet the chicks.
The door burst open, and five hungry, rowdy men faced this one, little, skinny, mountain woman, with her four children peeping from behind her long skirts. Right away they were ashamed, because they could see she didn't have anything much of value there, except for her children, of course.
"The leader of the gang said, 'Sorry to do this, Ma'am, but we got to eat.' He loaded the biscuits from the table into his sack, grabbed the pitcher, and gulped down some milk. Each took a gulp in turn. The children began to whimper, and their mama shushed them.
"The leader spoke again. 'We'll be goin' now, but we'll have to take your old nag.' Becky nodded stonily, hand still patting her bosom. Then they stomped out of the kitchen toward the barn. Next thing she saw, they were heading off - the leader riding the horse.
"The oldest child sneaked outside and came back crying. 'Mama, they stole the hens and the eggs, and all our corn! And they took old Ned. What'll we do, Mama?'
"But that brave woman, she didn't cry. Oh my, no!" (Our mother looked from one to the other of us. Here, we sensed, comes the lesson.)
" 'So they did, son,' she said. 'But we still have our cow. And we have our seed corn, and we can plant again. And lookit here,' she took the peeping chicks from out of her apron-top. 'We saved our chicks! These will become our seed chicks, to start our new flock. We'll have eggs again, soon.'
"Now isn't that a fine lesson for us all. You prepare in advance, and if things go wrong don't despair. You can always make a new start."
Our family history lesson now concluded, Mama rose from the table, placed our chicks in their box, and proceeded to serve breakfast.