"She’s a murderer!” "She’s a murderer!” My lips trembled as I spoke those words in a chant-like fashion. As a five-year old toddler, these were words I had heard adults use on TV and in the news, but those I dared not utter myself. Yet, in my juvenile attempt to characterize my grandmother’s transgression, these were the only words that came to mind.
As a second-generation kid of Italian descent, a visit to Grandma’s house in Rochester, New York’s inner city was like visiting a foreign land. While Grandma Rose (aka “The Boss”) wasn’t necessarily what you’d classify as eccentric, her old-world habits and traditions were mysterious to a young tyke like myself. Visiting grandma was an adventure of folkloric proportions for a grandson gentrified in the suburbs.
The smells and aroma of fresh garlic permeated her household as she daily brewed a fresh batch of pasta sauce for hours on end. Her broken English was always a challenge to interpret, particularly with my own limited vocabulary. But it was a delight to listen to and laugh at, around the kitchen table, with my fellow cousins.
She was the oddest, lovable character I had encountered during my five short years on the planet.
My mother grew up in grandmother’s household with six other siblings. They were first-generation Sicilians. When they eventually left her nest to start their own families, they were cognizant of how various nationalities in America treated each other. Protective of their children, we were purposely not taught Italian as a second language. As immigrants, it was my parents’ belief we would be marked and incur discrimination in school and society at large. The derogatory and pejorative slurs of “wop,” “guinea,” and “dago” were unfortunately used too often at the time to marginalize my ethnicity.
The disparity of The Boss’ meager urban casa and our modern-day bi-level ranch in a sub-division bedroom community separated us. But geography and architecture weren’t the major differences between grandma and us. It was also our way of life.
For instance, while household pets in my neck of the woods were of the canine-variety, Grandma was the first to introduce me to the idea that a chicken could also be man’s best friend.
So when Mom put me in Grandma’s charge one weekend, I had a lot of fun reacquainting myself with a couple of chicks she kept in a coop in the backyard, adjacent to her tool shed. With each visitation, I was amused as to how much weight they gained. But more curious to me was the fact Grandma Rose never called them by name.
To rectify that oversight, I took it upon myself to nickname them “Salt” & “Pepper,” for obvious reasons. One was a brilliant white, while the other, charcoal black.
Even though they were a delight to chase around the yard, I did get frustrated from time to time, when I unsuccessfully tried to teach them how to fetch a ball . . . or “sit,” or “lay down,” for that matter. I remember how these fruitless efforts brought a smile to my Grandma’s face.
One day to distract me, she suggested a shopping expedition to the Farmers’ Market. Differing from how these pop-up events have changed in modern-day, back then, it was a full-blown commercial enterprise for rural farmers to make a living. Harvesters and their sharecroppers journeyed once a week from locales hundred of miles away to sell their crops to city folk like us in an outdoor marketplace.
For a young lad, the sights and smells of this open-air bazaar was as exotic to me as what I witnessed later in life in foreign lands like Kyoto, Japan and Ladakh, India. This commercial shopping mecca was a cornucopia of freshly picked crops, foreign dialects and alien aromas.
While Grandma had me in tow, she seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to communicate in her native tongue while purchasing vegetables, pasta, meats and fruits for our sumptuous evening repast. However, when we reached the chicken kiosk, her temperament changed abruptly, as she engaged in an argument with one of the rural ranchers that quickly escalated. Unable to discern her Sicilian banter (aside from a few cuss words my cousins and I learned over time), I could detect from her gesticulations, she was not a happy camper.
Moments later, she seized my hand to signal our departure. When I asked why she was so angry, her only reply was “costa too much dead.”
With swift intent, we retreated from the marketplace in a flurry.
That evening prior to dinner, an indistinguishable ruckus drew me out to the backyard. To my shock and awe, two headless chickens were running around in circles chased by my frantic Italian Grandma, armed with an axe in her hand, yelling “costa too much dead. I kill 'em myself.”
After that momentous event, and up until adulthood, I have had a difficult time adjusting to the idea of having a meal that included poultry – particularly when family members makes the proverbial request: “please pass the Salt and Pepper, son"
Primary Source: Chickens Can Be Pets Too