It requires a breezy style or a keen sense of irony to pull off a rubber chicken purse in Manhattan. I have neither and it’s perhaps for this reason that my handbag, purchased at a historic farm in Katonah, New York, has been stashed in a closet ever since its return to the apartment. None of this is the chicken’s fault, I should add. The problem is entirely my own.
As field trips go, this one had manageable goals. All I wanted was a garden stroll one mild summer day last month and my husband’s requirement was that it be under a two-hour drive. The John Jay Homestead seemed the perfect solution for both of us.
The esteemed Founding Father and first Chief Justice of the United States retired to the country in 1801 to surround himself with children, grandchildren, and country life. On the day we visited his 62-acre farm there was a hum of activity we hadn’t counted on, much of it winding down. We had missed the teepees and livestock exhibits. Vendors were packing up books and glassware — the few sundresses that remained floated on racks beneath a white canopy. Cars rolled carefully out of a field, not an asphalt parking lot. It was all heady stuff for a city dweller.
Not everything was over, however. On the deep green lawn to one side of the house a lovely blond woman patiently answered last minute questions about the basics of raising chickens. No, you didn’t need a rooster to produce eggs and yes, some of her clients did keep chickens in New York City apartments. I hovered near the table and grabbed one of her cards. Coop D’État would provide a custom coop and the chickens would do the rest. My heart was racing at the sight of their delicate, pastel eggs and my husband, recognizing the familiar signs, pulled at my elbow.
“She’s trying to go home,” he said.
“Aren’t we all?”
“This is Westchester County, not Tulsa.”
Of course he was right, but there’s no arguing when the spirit of Oklahoma is upon me. A man loaded crates onto a truck as the last free chickens pecked at the base of a tree, kicking up dirt with prim, precise movements. Their busyness was strangely relaxing. What else did chickens do? I could imagine watching them for hours and petting long, silky feathers as we all settled down for a peaceful night. It was then that I noticed a row of rubber chicken purses roosting on the stone wall.
I dragged my husband closer to the display. Another woman stood perilously close to the chicken I wanted. Its knowing red-rimmed eyes were fixed on me, as if it knew our destinies were intertwined. My husband reached for his wallet as I had left my boring backpack in the car.
“You know this is going to get a lot of attention on the street, right?” he asked.
By the time I searched the bag for defects (there were none), made sure that it would hold every bit as much stuff as my backpack, and traipsed back to the car to stow my proud purchase, the tours of the Jay House were over. There was still time to tour the pest repellent plants in the herb gardens, however, and ample opportunity to consider taking home a real chicken or two.
“We would never have to use pesticides with a Silkie and maybe a Cochin.”
“We live in an apartment,” my husband replied.
“But we may not forever.”
In my mind they were already roaming through an insect-free garden. I dreamed of them all the way back to Manhattan. By the time we hit the elevator in our building, I had proposed contacting the co-op board for coop approval on the roof.
“Come on. The kids would love it.”
“You mean the kids who are 30 and 33?”
“No, silly. The kids in the building.”
But doubts began to creep in as twilight descended into darkness. I tried the purse with jeans and khaki pants, but it wasn’t the look I imagined.
“Did the chicken get fatter or am I crazy?” I asked my husband.
My husband’s comments were non-committal. He suggested that I call my daughter as he heated up the oven for a frozen pizza.
“You’re right! It would be perfect for her.”
“That’s not what I said.”
My daughter’s expression was neutral as I recounted our fabulous day in the country and produced the chicken bag, a gift she instantly declined.
“I think I’m starting to spot a trend,” she said gravely.
She reached for a candy from a glass jar with a silver chicken perched on top. Her gaze drifted to a corner of the dining area and a set of folding TV trays I bought my husband for his birthday. Purchased from Target online, they suggest French village life with postmarks from Lille and roosters. I thought of the very particular poulailler featured in my first novel, the one about an ex-pat who couldn’t leave Oklahoma behind. My passion for poultry was beginning to make perfect sense.
It didn’t take much soul searching to remember a timbered barn that is still standing, though it has long since passed into other hands. Once it was filled with kittens and horses, oats sweet enough to tempt a hungry child. To drive there from the Tulsa city limits meant passing a turkey farm. Hurrying past the malodorous, noisy enterprise meant we had almost arrived at our destination, a family farm bereft of chickens or Founding Fathers.
What does the John Jay Homestead have to do with any of this? Nothing and everything. Clearly nostalgia doesn’t need to be rooted in reality to be genuine, even a chicken bag made in China can do the trick. All it requires to take hold is a home in the imagination.