The late 1930s and early 1940s were a busy time in Chilmark as residents prepared for the privations that the impending world war would place on them. My brother, mother and I had joined our grandparents in their small Cape Cod home on State Road in 1939 and settled in for whatever came our way.

There were several outbuildings in the backyard, a wood house, an outhouse and an old hen house. Some member of the earlier generation had built a field stone rectangle with a peaked shingled roof that was about the size of a single bedroom to house hens. It had been closed for many years and we were surprised to discover that our Aunt Ella, who had left the house to my grandparents, had stored her late husband’s medical books in there. There were many of them in wooden crates.

My brother and I were sent to unpack and remove whatever was in the hen house. We dove into the pile of books and began our early education in human physical science. Every book contained illustrations of the human form, many without benefit of skin but all easy to identify. We were enthralled and spent many hours giggling and swapping discoveries until either my mother or our grandfather would miss us and roust us out. Eventually the hen house was ready for residents.

As was customary in those days, my mother ordered a couple of dozen chicks from Sears Roebuck and they arrived by mail. A call from the post office and we rushed down in our Model A to pick them up. Chicks have to be kept warm and sheltered until they get real feathers so we had cardboard trays lined with newspaper that fit under the kerosene range in the kitchen. We changed the papers everyday but you had to get used to the smell. Those little chicks made a lot of noise and ate and drank a lot. Of course, every morning we checked to see how many had made it through the night. There was some loss, but surprisingly they were pretty hardy. Needless to say, we had to keep the cats out of the house while the chicks were indoors.

My brother’s job was to clean out the hen house everyday with a long handled hoe that we found long saved in the wood house. My job was to feed them and keep the water dish full. All went well the first years, with eggs aplenty and hens that were tame enough to come in the house if we left the back door open. We got used to the rooster’s crowing and the general chatter in the backyard but we never got used to the messy yard that prevented us from going barefoot all summer.

The hens were allowed to range free in the yard joining with the often as many as 10 cats who lived in the woodshed and our pet fox terrier named Spot. Food was tossed outdoors on a cookie sheet and all the outdoor critters, hens, cats and dog, ate together a couple of times a day.

It became clear to my mother that there was more to chickens than eggs and she began to put chicken on the menu.

The killing and preparation of the dinners was a family affair. The Vineyard Haven grocery store SPS, sent a meat truck around the Island once a week and we became good friends with Ernest,the butcher and driver. He volunteered to chop the head off our Sunday dinner each week. But in the interest of becoming independent in our living arrangements, my mother designated me the chopper, my brother the catcher and she was the feather picker.

Here is how it worked. We would catch a hen,I would knock it out and chop its head off with a hatchet on the step of the wood house and toss it into the yard, where it would run for a minute or two and then my brother would catch it and hand it to my mother who had a bucket of hot water ready into which she plunged the carcass and picked off feathers. Voila, Sunday dinner.

My grandmother always named her favorite hens and made pets of some teaching them to come in the back door and forage under the kitchen table for scraps. She never came to the table on the days we ate chicken.

I hated those smelly, messy hens that demanded so much of my teenaged attendance morning and night, so I didn’t mind my hatchet job as much as you might think.