My mother kept chickens on our farm for many years. They provided us with fresh eggs every day and the occasional Sunday main course.
Our farm was at the foot of a mountain on which sits a famous religious sanctuary. Quite a few visitors from others parts of Italy and beyond used to drive up to the sanctuary, particularly in the summer. On their way back, some of them would stop to buy our farm-fresh eggs, vegetables and fruit, and jugs of wine that my father made from the grapes he harvested.
At the age of 30 I still had not found anyone to hire me. I was dying of boredom. Finally, the obvious hit me: I could raise chickens for their meat.
Initially, I bought about 50 Livorno chicks (known as Leghorns in America). With my father’s help, I put up wire fencing and fashioned a coop to protect the birds from the elements as well as from foxes and other night-time animal and human predators.
The fuzzy little chicks were happy to scurry about and scratch for worms and insects on a large plot of land. They were fun to watch as they grew up and their individual personalities came through. When they reached the age of 5 months, they were tall, meaty roosters.
There is nothing like a free-range chicken for dinner. Word about my enterprise got out quickly among family, neighbors, and others. They would come to select the bird they wanted and return after my sweet mother had removed all its feathers by hand. Everyone said my chickens were tasty.
The next time around, I bought 75 chicks with my profits. Business was good, and I was proud to have finally created something of my own.
When I started traveling to the U.S., I found it odd that being called “chicken” means being considered cowardly or afraid. No doubt I have been judged as “chicken” from time to time for not trying new things or pushing myself more. It’s hard for me to undertake something and fail at it; I can hardly look at myself in the mirror when things have gone wrong. I also think that my failures reinforce low expectations or negative perceptions of me.
Now that I think about it, as much as I like chickens, for me they came to represent failure, my failure on so many levels.
With my chicken business going well for about a year, I thought about expanding it. I wanted to double, even triple the amount birds I had at any given time. I could apply for government grants to buy automated defeathering machines and to build more and better coops.
To carry out my plans, I needed my father. First of all, it was his land on which the expansion would take place. Second, he would be the one to prepare the grant applications and all related paperwork for me.
When I presented my ideas to my father, he was silent for a moment. Then he asked why I wanted to bother with all that. I tried to sweeten the deal by assuring him that I would share the profits with him. “I don’t need the money,” he said, “and you don’t need to take on more than you already have.” Subject closed.
Within a couple of weeks, I had sold or given away every last bird. I had ripped out the fencing and made a bonfire with the wood from the torn-down coop. My mother was upset, thinking there was something wrong with me; I was so angry, my throat ached from the words I could not get out.
It took years to sort through my feelings. The kindling for my anger was the sense of being blocked, yet again. The ignition for that kindling was the knowledge that my father had no faith in me, that he was content for me to remain a nobody.
With the passage of more time I’ve come to realize that I was chicken – for failing to get over my need for dad’s approval. Why is parental approval so important to us even after we have grown up? When we don’t have it, it’s like a chronic ache in the body.
I will never forget a singer/songwriter who became a star in Italy in the 1970s. He came from simple folk; his father was a building doorman who wanted his son to go into banking. Instead, the guy wrote social and political commentary songs that he performed in a satirical, funny manner. His records sold very well; at least one song was a top-10 hit for three months.
The story goes that the singer, by then a household name, returned to his home town for a visit. Excitedly, he asked his father if he had seen him on TV. The father’s response? “You look like a clown, bouncing around the stage. It’s embarrassing.”
I can imagine how deflated that singer must have felt.