Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea [NOOK Book]

Overview

In this beautifully written and frequently funny memoir, Catherine Goldhammer, newly separated, along with her twelve-year-old daughter, starts life anew in a cottage by the sea, in a rustic town where live bait is sold from vending machines. Partly to please her daughter and partly for reasons not clear to her at the time, she begins this year of transition by purchasing six baby chickens?whose job, she comes to suspect, is to pull her and her daughter forward out of one life and into another. An unforgettable ...
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Still Life with Chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea

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Overview

In this beautifully written and frequently funny memoir, Catherine Goldhammer, newly separated, along with her twelve-year-old daughter, starts life anew in a cottage by the sea, in a rustic town where live bait is sold from vending machines. Partly to please her daughter and partly for reasons not clear to her at the time, she begins this year of transition by purchasing six baby chickens?whose job, she comes to suspect, is to pull her and her daughter forward out of one life and into another. An unforgettable story filled with hope and grace, Still Life with Chickens shows how transcendent wisdom can be found in the most unlikely of places.


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Editorial Reviews

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Goldhammer, in her 50s and newly divorced, stood at the precipice of a new life. Despite the relatively amicable nature of her divorce, she was nevertheless plagued with concerns over finding herself suddenly single in middle age, downwardly mobile, and raising a precocious 12-year-old daughter. The solution, she decided, was to present her daughter with a "bribe" -- six baby chicks to help pave the way from their life in an affluent New England suburb to a small, neglected seaside cottage in an altogether different sort of community.

Her daughter, it turns out, is crazy about the chickens, and so is Goldhammer. And as the birds mature, their growing needs for shelter and sustenance force her to go where no perfectly coiffed suburban housewife ever dared tread; places such as feed and hardware stores, to obtain the hammers, nails, and uncooperative chicken wire needed to construct a coop.

As the little house by the sea slowly takes shape -- courtesy of a small army of kindly plumbers, woodworkers, and other tradesmen -- Goldhammer finds that each obstacle presents an opportunity to grow away from her old life. Both good-humored and tender, Still Life with Chickens beautifully illustrates that in losing those status symbols we chase so vigorously, a life of real joy and graceful dignity may be gained. (Fall 2006 Selection)
More magazine
When divorce takes [Goldhammer] ... to a honky-tonk town with a preteen daughter and six chickens in tow, there is no still life! Only deeply felt, humorous, and, at last, happy life.
Publishers Weekly
From her book's opening lines, Goldhammer admits to the many insecurities she faced during her year of transition-during which she gets a divorce, slides "about three tax brackets poorer," relocates to a tattered New England cottage and singlehandedly raises her 12-year-old daughter, as well as half a dozen chicks-while cheekily setting herself apart from her competition in the memoir genre: "I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa." Goldhammer, a published poet, has an eye for life's mundane details, and these minutiae can grow tiresome ("We went through two mops, several sponges.... We broke one mop right in half"). But her recounting of her frustrations and her joys while remodeling the house and rearing the chickens is not only amusing but sometimes reads like a self-help manual, in which readers conclude that rolling up one's sleeves, getting busy and staying occupied with any strange new interest can successfully distract one from life's larger trials. As Goldhammer notes, "I had thought I was renovating a house. I didn't know that in the process I would also rebuild my life." (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781440628955
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/24/2007
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 578,836
  • File size: 162 KB

Meet the Author

Catherine Goldhammer is a graduate of Goddard College and was a poetry fellow in the fine arts program at the University of Massachusetts. She has been published in the Georgia Review and the Ohio Review.
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Read an Excerpt

IT WAS NEVER MEANT TO BE A FARM

I did not have a year in Provence or a villa under the Tuscan sun. I did not have a farm in Africa. Instead, my diminished resources dictated a move to a run-down cottage in a honky-tonk town where live bait is sold from vending machines. But as luck would have it, in a town where houses rub elbows, I came to live at the edge of a pond beside a small forest. I came to a place where a thousand dragonflies the size of small birds fly over my yard in the summer. In a town where everyone knows everything, I came to live in a place no one knows exists.

Five months earlier, newly single and about three tax brackets poorer, I was living beyond my means in the house of my daughter's childhood. A columnist for the Globe, who lived in a neighboring town and carried a wild and unspecified grudge, liked to say that "the lawns are green and the hearts are cold" in the affluent village my husband and I had moved to several years before, in the hey-day of our marriage, and I had always believed that he was at least a little bit right. I never felt blonde enough or rich enough or well enough dressed. My husband would have been the first to admit that he looked the part: tall, reed thin, and handsome in a J. Crew sort of way. He actually owned a cashmere jacket. But to be fair, clothes aren't the measure of the man, and he didn't belong in Hearts-Are-Cold any more than I did. He could, however, seriously pass. Now, a year after our amicable separation, Hearts-Are-Cold was no longer an option for me. The house was too big for my daughter and me, and hard to maintain. But mostly I just couldn't afford it. I had to seek new territory. Smaller territory. Cheaper territory. We would leave Hearts-Are-Cold and our rambling house on its beautiful hill. I would move my fierce and brilliant and utterly rooted 12-year-old daughter. I was terrified. But I was living off part-time work teaching reading, minuscule savings, and child support. Financial doom was visible at the bottom of the bank account, and other than selling my house there was no relief in sight. So I did what I had to do. I called a realtor.

And so it came to pass that a tiny blonde woman drove into my life in a really expensive car and became the midwife to my change in realty status, my shepherd. The shepherd -- I will call her Penny -- was in her late fifties and extraordinarily perky. On a bad day, she dressed better than I did on a high-normal day. On a day when she had to crawl around in basements, she might wear sleek black leggings and a fitted black jacket over a pristine white T-shirt while I wore what I called pajama clothes to the high-end market in Hearts-Are-Cold. Penny wore high-octane perfume, but she brought order to my life, which quickly took on the overpowering fragrance of Chanel No.5. For the five months it took me to sell a house, buy a house, and move, even my little Puerto Rican street dog smelled like Penny. I would become tired of her platinum hair and her perfume, her car and her merry blue eyes, but I would soldier on because Penny was a demon realtor and she would never let me believe that I couldn't do it, that I couldn't make it, that it wasn't possible to change everything about my life with a stroke of her Glinda-like wand. On the brink of signing the papers that would put our house on the market, I stared at her across the kitchen table. She waited patiently in her tweed riding jacket.

"I can't do this," I said. "I can't sell this house until I know where we're going." Where other realtors would have told me that was impossible, Penny didn't blink.

"Then let's find you a house," she said.

Finding smaller territory was not as easy as you might think. On a dismal, bitter day in March, yet another gray day in a long string of gray days, Penny and I drove around looking at houses for three dispiriting hours. My daughter was in school. I wanted to shield her. Before bringing her in, I needed to know the lay of the land.

It was the right decision, because the houses were not promising. The affluent town of Hearts-Are-Cold was surrounded by other affluent towns and those towns by more of the same. Houses in my new price range existed, but I didn't want any of them. One of them was pretty inside, mainly yellow, but sat straight up against a main highway-like road. One had a little brook in back, but the inside felt like the smallest bear's chair, tiny and broken. One of them looked as promising as a Cotswold cottage, on a postage stamp of land, but the owners refused to let anyone in. I had something in mind, a little cottage with clean white walls and a spacious floor plan. I had a faith born of a lifetime of finding good places to live: good karma in the housing realm. I don't know what clicked in me about houses, just that it did -- an unfailing sense of goodness, the ability to see the pristine apartment hiding in a farmhouse attic, the beauty in the abandoned home of an aged gardener. I can't say that my instincts had served me as handily in my choice of boyfriends, but in assessing real estate, I was gifted.

Now, after hours of looking I doubted myself. Maybe where I would live now would be cramped and dreary, with bad land and too much traffic. Maybe Penny wasn't listening, or maybe she was just doing the best she could in the circumstances, working with the dollars at hand. Maybe my luck had turned sour.

"Do you have one more in you?" asked Penny as we drove in the direction of what would soon no longer be my home.

I didn't. I was tired. The perfume saturation levels in Penny's car had reached the point where I actually wondered if my lungs might be permanently damaged. But my resolve had weakened house by house, and so we drove beyond Hearts-Are-Cold to a town set upon a six-mile peninsula bordered on one side by Boston Harbor and on the other by the Atlantic Ocean. Once the home of a large amusement park with a famous roller coaster, it had developed haphazardly, with recreation rather than posterity in mind. Big houses sat cheek by jowl with tiny ones, shoe-horned together on tiny streets. Some of them were beautiful and some of them were decidedly not. The seaside lawns tried valiantly to be green, but they were small, and some of them had remnants of the amusement park in them: an oversized pink teacup with bench seats, a faded turquoise bumper car. Six Mile Beach was a working-class town, a town with a twenty-four-hour Laundromat and a very busy police force. Clusters of elegant old Victorian houses congregated on a couple of hills high above the ocean and the bay, where the views were good and the crime rate minimal. Though in the midst of a slow process of change, this seaside town was the poor relation to the wealthy towns around it. It was insular and protective. The school system was not popular. You don't want to know what would happen to it in a hurricane. I had always liked it there.

The house she took me to was not on the Victorian hills. It sat at the near end of the peninsula, on the borders of Hearts-Are-Cold and its even wealthier neighbor, but one should not be fooled by proximity. We drove down two tiny roads, past a collection of ramshackle cottages, onto a dead-end lane, and past a brown house. My heart sank as we approached the brown house. My daughter, for reasons known only to her, hated brown houses and refused to live in one.

The next house (gray, vinyl siding) looked sullen and uninviting on that cold and overcast day, but Penny hopped out of her BMW (black, convertible) and we slogged past a battered monster truck and across the slush-covered yard. An empty house can be a pitiful thing, and this one was empty, cold, and in a sorrowful frame of mind. The floors were worn to bare wood and covered with black stains. The windows were opaque with milky vapor. A demented chandelier hung on a tilt from the ceiling. In two of the rooms, it appeared that someone had turned several children loose with hot pink and blue paint and sponges. Everything. Floor to ceiling. Moldings. It reminded me of a cartoon I saw once, in which a decrepit old man led a younger man down a long hall of paintings. "The next one will knock your eyes out," said the old man, as they were about to turn a corner. Around the corner, under the painting in question, was a basket full of eyeballs.

Smack in the middle of the peeling, sagging, dirty gray kitchen, hogging most of the rather large room, someone had built a chest-high, three-sided partition out of wallboard, finished it off with a nice polished piece of pine on the top, and put a rusted stove in it. By no stretch of the imagination was this an island. One could walk around it, but barely. (Workmen would refer to it for months in the future: "Remember that thing in the middle of the kitchen?" one would ask. "Yeah," the other would reply. "What was that?")

Then I peered out some sliding doors at a moldering deck. And there, beyond the stained deck and the huge, barren, snow-covered yard, was a large salt pond. The only thing separating me from the ocean was that pond and one-hundred feet of land. To the south stretched unexpected acres of pine woods. Such bounty did not exist in this town, and yet there it was. I turned from the windows with a different vision. I walked down a small hall to the back of the house and found two small square bedrooms. They were tidy and neat. The walls wore a blessedly new coat of off-white paint and the floors were wood -- the same bare boards with black stains as in the rest of the house, but wood nonetheless. I looked into the bathroom. One could walk into the room only by squeezing past the pointy corners of a huge broken-down vanity. The bathtub was worn down to bare, rusted cast iron. Half the tiles were missing from the walls and floors, and the grime of decades covered everything. But by then I had begun to dream. There was something not terrible about this house. This house was "before" waiting for "after."

Penny and I spent an hour prowling separately in the damp, cold rooms. Our paths crossed periodically.

"I'm thinking this might not be so bad," she said the first time.

"I'm beginning to like this for you," she said the second time.

"I'd buy this myself," she said at last. "I can definitely see you here. What do you think?"

I was not handy. I didn't want a fixer-upper. My father was dying. I was newly separated. I didn't need more stress. I wanted to sit still in a quiet room for a few months. But propelled by I am not sure what combination of emotions, I made an offer. The house had been on the market for a year, but an open house was scheduled for the coming Sunday. I was afraid -- and justifiably so, it turned out -- that someone else who saw what I saw would come along now. And someone did, as it turned out, but my offer had already been made and accepted: a full-price offer, which even so was half the price my house in Hearts-Are-Cold would end up fetching. I could not save my marriage or my father but I would save this poor, sad, good house.

We would move at the end of July. I spent the next four months making lists. Lists about money, renovations, windows, skylights, kitchens, bathrooms, gardens, fences, and dormers. I had enormous lists. They were all about hope. I made them over and over.

Friends were polite but largely silent, and I suspected that they talked among themselves about my folly. The ones who had propped me up during the final disintegration of my marriage surely thought that I did not need one more difficult thing. But contractors, builders, and carpenters stood with me in the cold and peeling kitchen. We made plans. We had ideas. We glowed. There was some supposition that they liked the house so much because they saw dollar signs written all over it. But I thought that, like me, they could see beyond its tawdry exterior into its radiant soul. The house was waiting for us -- the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician, and the dreamer -- to roll up our collective sleeves and bring it back to life.

And so I bought my cottage, my house by the sea. For the five months it took to finalize both deals I moved daily from joy to despair. I had found a house. A house I could work with. But look what I had done, the project I had taken on, what I had gotten myself in for. In the year that followed, I would sell one house, buy another, renovate it, move myself, my daughter, my dog, my cat, and six chickens, and become obsessed with the meaning of life.

It was never meant to be a farm.

This is the story of my foray into the salvation of one sorry house and garden and one slightly tattered soul. It is the story of a small house on a big piece of land, by a salt pond, nine-hundred feet from the great Atlantic Ocean. It is the story of a time that began as failure and turned into grace for a mother and a daughter and a small, determined dog. And, in what started as a bribe and then became a love story, it is the tale of my reluctant ownership of six two-day-old chickens who came to live with us here, on Dragonfly Farm.

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Table of Contents


It Was Never Meant to Be a Farm     1
A Little Cosmic Je ne Sais Quoi     11
Chickens of the Mind     17
Actual Chickens     27
The Ark     45
Guardians     56
What I Left Behind     68
In the Beginning     77
Chickens on Trial     96
Ova     111
The Window     117
Transformations     125
Chickens in Winter     133
If You Can See the Ocean     142
Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring     153
Zen Chickens     166
Dragonfly Farm     174
Acknowledgments     177
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2008

    A very interesting memoir

    Title of the book: Still Life with chickens: Starting Over in a House by the Sea A memoir by Catherine Goldhammer<BR/> In this enjoyable and beautiful autobiography, catherine goldhammer is newly divorced and starting life over with her 12 year old daughter. After her amicable separation with her husband, she felt like her house was too big for her and her daughter. she decided to sell it and move into a small cottage by the sea. Since her daughter did not like the idea of moving,she promises her if they move, she will buy her some chickens. She ordered the chickens from a catalogue. Her daughter was very excited about the chikens. She bought six chickens before she even purchased her house. She met a nice realtor that helped her a lot in the process of getting the house. The book was short,very easy to read. The story was very powerful.It was a lesson about hope. When i read the title of the book, i did not think the story had anything to do with real chickens. I was surprised When Golhammer at the end of chapter I was referring to "six two-day old chickens who came to live with us here." Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone like this author, to try different things in life. Life is a learning lesson, you will never know until you try something new.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    inspired reading

    In her fifties and beginning to think of what she will do during her golden years, Catherine Goldhammer instead finds herself obtaining a divorce albeit an amiable one from her husband. The immediate impact is being economically poorer and raising their twelve years old daughter by herself. She relocates from affluent suburbia with her offspring to a fixer upper New England cottage that came with six two-day old chicks. Catherine bought the house and the chicks with the former for her and the latter to occupy her daughter. This terrific insightful memoir reflects the year she adjusted all cylinders of her life starting with raising the chickens and renovating a dump that the two female Goldhammers loosely called home. In the process she also repaired a broken psyche. Her fears especially for her daughter, her joy over minuscule successes, and her euphoria that the hard work starting with the bribery chickens that saved her soul make for inspired reading. --- Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2007

    Very Sweet Memoir

    This is a very small, sweet treasure. I really enjoyed it and it's from the heart.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2014

    I loved this book! It was very interesting and an easy read. It

    I loved this book! It was very interesting and an easy read. It included stories about people, animals and life. It was very well written and honest. I think well-written memoirs are the best!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2013

    Sparrow

    She held it across her palms, looking after him questioningly. On the verge of tears, she crawled into her hoodie and wrapped her arms around her knees.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2013

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 10, 2014

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    Posted July 4, 2011

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    Posted March 18, 2009

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