“Ma,” we implored, “tell us again how chicken soup started.”
Eyes sparkling, she narrated as we drew close to her, how our people long, long ago, wandering forever in the wilderness, needed more than a distant God who didn’t show pity for their misery. Then one day a hungry clever man spotted a scrawny chicken next to a pot of boiling water, thus the inspiration.
My blessed—she would resent sainted and I can’t risk a curse—mother considered chicken soup as the poor man’s panacea, the ultimate cure-all, the power potage to combat ennui, the common cold, relationships gone awry and cheaper than analysis. If I had an upset stomach, chicken soup, suffered the taunts of bullies, same response, “Sit down and eat your soup.” Simple advice and timely as the Depression raged around us. Her soup cauldron was bottomless.
My mother, she should have been on the stage, a comic in a bleak world and a tragedian in a foolish one. I would sit down and start on my soup and she would look very seriously at me and caution, “Watch for bones.” Then she smiled and quickly looked away. My siblings guffawed. What did a young squirt know? She said the same thing when it was ice cream or cantaloupe.
Part of the chicken soup routine was buying the bird. Still too young for school, I accompanied my mother on her Friday morning rounds.
There was an easy familiarity between her and the neighborhood’s denizens and shopkeepers. She knew the places that appealed to my adventurous spirit. Mr. Gendler, a reedy, garrulous man, had the clothing store on Union Avenue. Always good-natured. His emporium was dimly-lit with clothing piled neatly on tables. Customers meandered from table to table scanning the merchandise. Mr. Gendler had a good word for everyone.
He genuinely liked Ma. “Does your mister know how lucky he should have such an attractive wife?
She must have struggled to not consider that remark an opening to pour out her heart, to relate how her mister paid no attention as long as horses ran and cards were dealt. “I need knickers for the boy; he starts school at the end of summer. I come here, not the May Company, because you carry the best things.”
“Besides, look what you save in streetcar fare. For you, missus, I pick the best ones. These brown ones.”
“Hm, two-fifty. Maybe I should go downtown after all. I don’t know.”
“Wait just a minute. A mistake. These are on sale. Today only a dollar fifty.”
“So where does it say ‘sale’?”
“I forgot to tag them. Take my word.”
My mother smiled wanly and Mr. Gendler’s fib was absolved. She charmed just about everyone. Over the years she could have saved enough for a fancy car. Well, not real fancy.
Union Avenue knew my mother. I beamed at being with her. The waves and greetings were amended by compliments to me. “Such a nice boy.” “He’s the spitting image of his mother.” “You should live and be well, you got an angel. And so nice looking.”
Ma replied, “You got maybe a pretty daughter? He’s almost old enough to get married.”
“Married? Such a little person. Is he a midget?”
“No, just a little small for his age. We don’t feed him.” She secretly squeezed my hand and told the well-wishers, “Besides, we don’t like him. Do you have a nice home for him? He won’t eat much and he knows when to go to the toilet, sometimes.”
With little variation, this banter occurred all the time. Everyone played their role as we continued down the street. Being visible, very important.
I tugged at my mother’s coat and whimpered, “Ma, will you make noodles for the soup? I’ll help chop. And can I have the eggs?”, referring to the undeveloped baby eggs from the chicken’s stomach. A delicacy to fight for. Families have broken up for less.
Her answer: “You kids make such a fuss. If there’s enough, everybody will get one.”
Next stop was my favorite. Kaufman’s, an emporium for the vending of fowl made dietarily kosher with the appropriate benedictions. The store was next to an empty lot where someone, maybe the Kaufman brothers, kept goats. Nothing was closer to nature in the eyes of a small boy living in a crowded neighborhood than to have a menagerie practically on the corner of his street.
“They could butt him, missus,” warned the Kaufman brother with the glass eye that both frightened and intrigued me as I tried to follow its meanderings without being overly obvious. He approached us in the cacophony of the clucks and crowing of the caged birds- chicken, geese, ducks.
Ma stated, “Mr. Kaufman, I want a chicken that it should be fresh. What you got?”
“Over here’s a couple chickens. Very fresh. Killed and blessed just this morning.”
“Don’t look so fresh to me. This one looks like it should be in a home for old chickens.”
“That one happens to be one of my freshest. Listen to it and tell me it’s not fresh.” He turned his back and covered his mouth with his hand. A muffled voice spoke, “Hey, cutie, you’re gorgeous. You want maybe to go dancing?”
Ma always smiled at the familiar skit, in a fashion, barnyard-courting, in a richly-smelling poultry store. “You flirt with a married woman yet. And a mother of five. You should be ashamed. That’s some chicken you got there.”
The chicken answered, “Five, ten. What’s the difference? How can someone not flirt with you? And they pay to see Mae West.”
“How could I cook a chicken so human it could talk? And what kind of man are you that you should kill a chicken with so much talent? It should be on the Amateur Hour.”
And she always bought the next chicken.
Mr. Kaufman stated, “You wait here, missus, and I’ll see to it this chicken will not be a pest.”
“Save the feet, Mr. Kaufman. My oldest son loves to nibble on them.”
Five minutes later, Mr. Kaufman returned from the back room. He displayed the chicken for my mother’s approval, as if to prove it wasn’t the old chicken-switch game when you’d get one so tough you’d need a saw. Mr. Kaufman, having noted the nod of approval, wrapped newspaper around the bird’s carcass and tied the bundle with string.
“Now, why did you do that, Mr. Kaufman? I wanted for you to put a string around his neck while he was alive and I could walk him home.”
“Oh, if you did that, it would lose weight from the exercise and you would have less chicken. Then you would come back and call me ‘cheater.’”
“And where would I find another chicken man who knows so much about poultry and customers both?”
So we walked back home along Union Avenue stopping for brief words with anyone we met and the same exchanges transpired.
The ritual of preparation had its own script—and magic. My mother unwrapped the chicken, held it above a large pot and squeezed the bird. She called the first juices the sweetest and the base for the rich broth to follow. I never actually saw the droppings but merely nodded affirmatively when she commented, “See, there’s a drop.” She smiled knowingly and chuckled while muttering, “So why do we send children to school? They should spend their time in kitchens and learn about real life.”
It was a treat to be allowed to stir the pot. But, she never told us if we should stir clockwise or counter-clockwise. She would leave the kitchen for awhile, return and unfailingly tell if we had stirred in the right direction.
In such an atmosphere of pretense and put-ons and distortion, uncertainties of necessity mounted and were to rule our lives perspectives. Why? A parent’s method of coping with the pains of child-rearing? An airiness to endure the harsh realities of saving a buck on a pair of pants or not having money for a picture show? Maybe a mother’s need to instill values of both the comic aspects and the stings that awaited us.
To look at her, one couldn’t discern this thin, publicly-cheerful person was an invalid, in bed much of the time.
On a bitter winter morning, a Friday, chicken day, we left our house headed for Union Avenue, fighting an unsparing wind and struggling to catch our breaths. The sidewalks were treacherous sheets of ice. We stopped in front of Kritzer’s Bakery. Ma halted and gasped, “Wait a minute, sonny. I’m a little dizzy.”
Before I could respond she sank to her knees, and then fell forward, face down.
I didn’t cry, at least overtly, at the services and internment and haven’t since. The family dispersed. My father asserted he couldn’t assume the responsibility and left for a job out of town. I wound up living with an aunt and uncle, who were very kind, but they lived far away from Union Avenue and their chicken soup was from a can.
I couldn’t find that new neighborhood’s equivalent of Union Avenue, but it had to be there for those who grew up in its presence. Every neighborhood had its version. I just had to find my own in a new place and to somehow establish roots.