An egg only two hours old is truly a beautiful thing.
The ones my neighbor’s hens —her girls, she calls them — lay are an even, pale brown and a faint, barely-there blue and a few of them are dusted with a sprinkling of darker freckles. Some of them are larger than others. Some are more oval. Every single one of them nestles in its space in the cardboard carton my neighbor hands over like a diamond ring in a velveteen-lined box.
Night before last, I squandered four of the dozen I’d just bought on the cupcakes I was making for my older daughter’s class, for her ninth birthday.
The first one I picked up fit so satisfactorily in the cup of my hand. It somehow felt realer than eggs you get from the store. Was that because I know the back yard these particular hens peck bugs from, the red-tailed hawk that sits the pine tree overlooking the tumble of kudzu and blackberry bramble behind it? Or was it just because, knowing all that background, I gave this egg more scrutiny than I usually give the ones I purchase during a harried trip to the grocery store on Saturday morning? Was it that my brain might be large enough to absorb the thought of five hens in a backyard coop doing what it’s in their chicken natures to do, but before the enormity of thousands and thousands of chickens laying thousands and thousands of eggs — all uniform and white and indistinguishable from one another — my poor human brain fails me?
I tapped each egg — gently, gently, harder — against the rim of a green mixing bowl. The shell cracked open cleanly, the contents slid into the bowl, the yolk high and domed, bright orange.
It’s interesting, how many of our sayings are influenced by animal husbandry and by the barnyard. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The egg, of course, I thought, as I stood in my kitchen after my children had gone to bed, hugging a green mixing bowl to myself as I beat yolks into a pale yellow froth.
I could’ve bought cupcakes at the store. The kids who were going to eat them didn’t care, either way. One of them hates vanilla icing, another dislikes cupcakes altogether. The recipe I was using was persnickety and kind of a pain, it was almost ten o’clock at night, and I hadn’t made enough butter cream frosting. I opened another box of butter, retrieved the confectioner’s sugar from the cupboard. I thought how silly I was, how silly this was. There’s not time for this, I lectured myself.
I was born the year The Feminine Mystique was published. From childhood on, I’ve imbibed this message: domestic is demeaning. A smart woman, a woman worth her salt, is above domestic duties, although under duress, in between more fulfilling work, she does them. Not for nothing did my mother have thumbtacked to the bulletin board in her office the sentiment: Dull Women Have Immaculate Homes.
And more recently I’ve read much — I understand that the rituals of motherhood can be indulgences, the by-products of luxury and privilege.
Poor little egg, how can it keep from being crushed by all this weight?
I held one in my hand, and it was serene and complete, in its eggness. Besides, I’d already started on this course, and twenty-four cupcakes were in-process on the kitchen island. I turned from there to the counter. I sifted flour. I beat egg whites. I remembered as if it were yesterday the mixture of love and abject terror I’d felt the day we brought Elder Girleen home from the hospital; I thought on the tilt of her feathery eyebrows.
They’re amazing things, my neighbor’s eggs. Every day, the girls — Poppy and Iris and Marigold — lay them. Every single day.
Nine years, I thought, since she was born, my eldest daughter. Nine years since I held that crumpled bud of a baby with a shock of dark hair in my arms. In nine more years, she’ll go off to college. Equally amazing.
I bent to pull muffin tins from the oven. Life moves so fast; we have so many choices. Most of the time I forget — that there is joy to be had in small gestures, performed with intention.
It was ten o’clock at night, and I stood yawning in my kitchen, alit with a still, small urgent spark of desire: to honor the eggs my neighbor’s chickens laid; to honor the universe for giving me daughters, and birthdays.