If you are a parent, sooner or later you will be called upon to do your duty. No, I am not talking about taking the kids to the dentist, teaching them to swim, or making sure that their mama has told them the facts of life. I am talking about school projects. Over the years, I have stepped up time after time and taken my parental responsibilities seriously. I have helped produce pint-sized wooden prison camps. I have assisted in the assembly of a miniature Globe Theater that would have made William Shakespeare proud. I have gazed with pride upon a village full of spindly but lethal Vikings made of pipe cleaners. And I have assisted in the construction of many igloos. They are my specialty, little domed replicas constructed of sugar cubes, marshmallows, or Styrofoam popcorn. But none of this vast experience even began to prepare me for the horrors of Egyptian chicken.
“Here’s what we have to work with,” my neighbor said, gesturing towards her kitchen table. Her child and mine were classmates and had been assigned a school project. The odd collection of items on the table included aluminum foil, salt, pepper, two rolls of gauze, string, some Oil of Olay hand cream, and a frozen chicken.
“We’re not going to have much luck building an igloo out of this,” I noted dubiously, retreating into my comfort zone.
“We are not building an igloo,” she said. “We are mummifying a chicken.” Mummifying a chicken was going to be my second guess.
“Right,” I said. The importance of this skill to the children’s success in life was obvious. “Do you know how to mummify a chicken?” I thought it was important that one of us had this knowledge, and I had apparently been out sick the day that poultry mummification was covered in high school.
“Does anyone know how to mummify a chicken?” she replied, handing me a pair of rubber gloves. She had a point, but we couldn’t let that stop us.
For those of you who have been living in an alternate universe until yesterday, let me take a minute and explain about school projects. Regardless of what you may have heard, they are not the method that teachers employ to punish us for sending our kids to them. Rather, educators at all grade levels use projects to determine which of their students has the handiest parents. Additionally, children are instructed to keep the projects secret until 9:00 pm the night before they are due, so that parents’ reactions to stress and adversity can be measured. Unfortunately, the same project is never assigned two years in a row. This has been the practice since it was discovered that one parent—who shall remain nameless—always kept a completed igloo on hand for emergencies. And occasionally, a group project like chicken mummification will be assigned, so that parents from all walks of life can learn to work together while their children play in the yard.
“Hand me the Oil of Olay,” my partner said bravely. She was a trooper and had already salted and peppered the bird.
“Check,” I replied. “Why are we going to rub Oil of Olay on the chicken?” Until that very moment, I would have been willing to bet any amount of money against ever in my lifetime uttering that particular phrase.
“We are supposed to rub fine oils on him. This is the finest oil I have.”
“Shouldn’t we use frankincense and myrrh?” I asked.
“The supermarket was out of those,” she said. Just then, the kids came running in. It doesn’t take long for word to get out when there is a poultry-rubbing to perform, and they wanted some of the action. Each child grabbed a chicken leg, and they looked like they were about to make a wish. “Maybe you could work on the sarcophagus,” my partner suggested. I knew how to take a hint.
“Consider the sarcophagus to be history,” I replied.
I went and looked up sarcophagus in the dictionary, and it turned out to be an Egyptian coffin. I felt better then, because building it was going to be sort of like making a square, upside-down igloo with a lid on it. I constructed it out of good pine lumber. When completed, it was a vessel fit to bear our mummified friend on his journey to the Egyptian afterlife, or to the dumpster behind the school, if that was his fate. The kids painted it gold, and lined it with the aluminum foil, and drew hieroglyphs on the sides and an Egyptian fowl on the top, a regal bird with his head in profile and his wings like two opposite L’s. The capon was rubbed in Oil of Olay until his skin was as smooth as a baby’s, and he was wrapped in gauze, tied in string, and nailed into his little pine box. Then the whole business was popped into the freezer until the next morning, just to be on the safe side.
A school project is an educational exercise, and much wisdom was shared during the mummification process. The kids learned about ancient Egyptian people and the lengths to which they would go to preserve their chickens. My neighbor learned that she is actually happier living a vegetarian lifestyle. And I learned three great lessons. First, if you can build an igloo, you can build a sarcophagus. Secondly, frankincense and myrrh are getting much harder to find. And finally, Oil of Olay can make even a frozen, mummified chicken look younger and more beautiful. I think it would make a great marketing slogan.