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How Chickens Brought Her Closer to Her Teenage Granddaughter

Nothing she tried seemed to break through her granddaughter’s wall of indifference. Then some feathered friends came along.

Noelle Vorbau, 13, with her chickens in the backyard of her Los Altos, CA home.
Credit: Martin Klimek

I checked my phone again. Still nothing from my 13-year-old granddaughter, Noelle.

Why won’t she return my text messages? I wondered.

Noelle—I called her Noe—was my youngest grandchild. From the moment I laid eyes on her as a newborn and she gazed back at me, Noe captured my heart.

For years, Noe and her family lived close by, and she and I spent a lot of time together. It made my day to see Noe’s face light up whenever I arrived. She parted her long blonde hair straight down the middle. A perfect frame for her adorable grin.

Then my husband and I moved to a different part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Mileage-wise, it wasn’t an impossible distance. But with traffic it now took up to two hours to drive to Noe’s house.

Combine that with the pandemic and my regular visits with Noe came to an abrupt end. The last time I saw her, she was beside herself with excitement about the latest addition to her life: Golden, a baby chick her mom bought for her to raise in the backyard. Golden was just like her name, a fluffy ball of bright yellow down, soft as a dandelion.

   Sandi and her grandaughter, Noelle. 

For a while, Noe and I kept up via text messages and occasional phone calls. Gradually, her text replies took longer to arrive. Phone calls became brief and a bit awkward.

“How’s online school going?”

“Okay, I guess.”

“What’s your favorite subject?”


Nothing I tried seemed to break through Noe’s sudden wall of indifference. What was I doing wrong? Was she okay? Did she even miss me?

Noe got five more chickens during lockdown. I asked about them every time we talked. But caring for the chickens seemed more interesting to her than talking to me. She was often busy with them and didn’t come to the phone when I called the house.

Was I being supplanted in my granddaughter’s heart by a bunch of…chickens?

My cell phone pinged. Noe! But there were no words in the text. Just photos. Noe on her bike with a chicken in her lap. Noe on her scooter with another chicken. Noe and a chicken watching TV on the couch.

Humph. Those were all things she and I used to do together. God, I prayed, I don’t want to be jealous of a flock of chickens. Show me how to connect with my granddaughter.

Months passed with barely a word from Noe. At last, everyone in our family was eligible for a Covid vaccine and my husband and I could schedule a visit to Noe’s house. I couldn’t wait. I pictured scooping up my beloved granddaughter in my arms like I did when she was little.

Then I remembered the chickens. She would probably be too busy with them to bother giving me a hug.

We pulled up to Noe’s house. Out she came with the rest of her family.

Who was this girl? My eyes widened. Last time I saw Noe, she was 11. Nearly two years later, she was a teenager on the way to becoming a young woman. She was taller. She looked older. Her face wore an expression that somehow seemed to combine independence with acute self-consciousness.

She reminded me of her mom, my daughter Kris, when she entered adolescence. Overnight it seemed Kris switched from sitting by my side and sharing her thoughts to keeping everything to herself and telling me to butt out. She was present yet absent, her mind elsewhere.

All at once it was clear. I hadn’t been replaced by chickens. Our relationship had not been severed by the pandemic. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Noe was a teenager. Her lack of communication with adults was totally normal for someone her age. It was me who’d been holding on to unrealistic and outdated expectations. I needed to let go and embrace this new stage in my granddaughter’s life.

“Show me your chickens,” I said to Noe. She promptly led me to the backyard, where the henhouse was.

“How in the world do you tell them apart?” I asked when I saw the half dozen fluffy birds pecking contentedly around the yard.

“Easy, Grandma,” she said. “They all have different personalities.”

One by one she introduced me to her feathered friends, giving detailed descriptions of their preferences and antics. It was more words than we’d exchanged in a year.

“That’s Beep Beep,” she said as an especially friendly chicken bobbed its way to my feet. “She’s the sweetest. Bock Bock over there is the leader and likes to strut the coop and boss around the other hens. Missa here gets jealous. That one’s Golden. She’s my favorite but she’s kind of fearful…”

Noe went on. Suddenly she said, “I know, let’s take the chickens for a walk. I’ll let you walk Golden.”

I looked at her curiously. Chickens go for walks? Apparently they do.

Noe draped halters over the chickens and handed me a leash. Golden cocked her head at me as if to say, “I’m ready.”

We walked through the neighborhood, attracting a few quizzical looks. Noe watched over the chickens like—well, a mother hen. The longer we walked, the more she opened up about the rest of her life. How boring it was attending online school. How much she missed seeing her friends spontaneously.

“This is fun,” she said, flashing one of those Noe grins I so loved.

It sure was. I said a silent thank-you to God. And to the chickens. You never know who’s going to teach you a lesson in letting go and accepting change. I looked forward to many more walks and talks with my granddaughter—and her adorable, feathered friends.

For more inspiring animal stories, subscribe to All God’s Creatures magazine.

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