This is how Byers’ special Saturday Crow Sammiches works: you start with two fresh slices of white bread.
Cousin Kim apparently uses whole wheat bread, but she also gives her kids Ovaltine, so take that for what it’s worth.
Anyway, two fresh slices of white, you spread them thick with margarine or butter (whatever’s cheaper, as mom would say). Onto this you squirt classic yellow mustard, and then you sprinkle both sides with sugar. Close the sandwich, cut in triangles. Put on a paper towel, carry it to the back of the yard at dusk, near where the Shubenacadie River flows by, and leave it there.
The first time I took Dave home, when we had been dating just weeks, it was a last Saturday of the month. Mom had just finished cutting the sandwich. When she came in, Dave looked curiously out the back window.
“Who is the lunch for, Mrs. Carter?”
In 18 years, I didn’t remember ever asking that question. We called them Crow Sammiches, so I guess part of me just assumed they were for crows, although I don’t remember seeing any crows eating them.
Mom kind of shrugged. “They’re not really for anyone, David. Just a thing my family’s done since I was a little girl.”
His arched eyebrows suddenly reminded me of when I was 8, at Susie Archibald’s sleepover. It was a big deal, because the Archibalds lived in a big house on Young Avenue in town, which was a neighborhood the Byers rarely went to. I asked when we were going to make the crow sammiches and Mrs. Archibald’s voice had dripped with disapproval as she told me that MOST families did not leave out food to attract the animals.
“Who started Crow Sammiches, mom?” I asked.
“I think it was my dad, but I’m not sure,” mom replied. “Why don’t you ask Uncle Pete sometime, he might remember.”
It was months later at Aunt Bernie’s birthday that I remembered to ask. Uncle Pete was wearing one of those silly cardboard party hats and trying to get the rest of us to put them on.
“Uncle Pete, who started Crow Sammiches?”
Uncle Pete leaned back in his chair and sipped his boiled tea. “Well, little Sara, a long time ago, your great-great-great grandfather Jedediah got lost in the woods late one night. He had been out hunting rabbits to feed his family, and stayed out too late. It got dark, and he settled down to sleep on a mossy hill. Suddenly he heard a growl and saw the glittering eyes of a coyote! And the coyote saw him too, and smelled the rabbits he had wrapped in leaves beside him. Well, ol’ Jed was pretty scared. He pulled out his flask of medicinal brandy and sipped some for strength as he prepared to run. He figured he could get up a tree before the coyote caught him. The coyote scrunched back to get ready to jump, and Jed scooted fast. He pelted up a tall larch tree and hauled the rabbits up with him.
“As he settled in, he worried he’d fall asleep and fall out of the tree. Then a big crow landed beside him. He figured the crow was after the rabbits too, and thought he was knackered for sure. But the crow spoke to him, and said, I will keep you company until the coyote goes and help you find your way home, but you have to make me a promise.
Jed wondered what had happened to his brandy that he was hearing birds talk, and then he thought he must be dreaming. So he said, sure, anything. And the crow said, you have to leave me a sandwich every month, just at the edge of your property. What kind of sandwich, asked Jed. Mustard and sugar, sweet and sour, which are the two sides of every person, and every crow, said the crow. And sure enough, he led Jed home after the coyote left, and we Byers been leaving Crow Sammiches ever since.”
Everyone at the table had paused to listen to this story and Aunt Bernie rolled her eyes at the end. “Lord, Pete. You can tell your grandfather came straight from Blarney. Talking crows.” She gathered the plates off the table, shaking her head.
Cousin Kim was only 14 then, and piped up, “but then why do we do Crow Sammiches, mom?”
“Cause your grandfather drank lots more than ‘medicinal brandy’ and his children caught his craziness,” replied Bernie firmly, and that was that.
The night Dave and I were married, we put out Crow Sammiches at the edge of the golf course where the reception was. My grandmother saw us strolling back from the treeline and winked devilishly.
“Fine night for canoodling, now that you’re married and all.”
“GRAMMA!” I was scandalized and amused. I told her we had put out the sandwiches, as a bit of a superstitious nod to family tradition.
“That’s nice, dear. I always figured your grandpa had some drinking buddy who got kicked out by his wife every month around check time.”
“Interesting,” muttered Dave.
When Leah was born, Dave took over the Sammich duty. One night as he came back, my oldest uncle, Leo, called from BC. Dave talked to him as Leah finished feeding.
“Just putting out the Crow Sandwiches,” yelled Dave. His eyebrows rose a bit and he clicked on the speaker phone so I could hear Leo.
“Oh, the Crow Sammiches. Dad always insisted mom get ‘em ready. I remember him supervising her, making sure she did it right. We kids all figured he ate those sammiches, with all that sugar. You know, Dad had the diabetes something terrible, almost lost his foot. But he loved him some sugar. He’d be so excited about that treat sometimes it would bring tears to his eyes.”
Kim was the first grandchild to officially stop doing Crow Sammiches. Made me a little sad, but then, it also allowed me to acknowledge that we went months in between remembering to do it.
When Gramma died, I helped mom and Kim clean out her apartment. We sorted all the tiny treasures she had kept, teething cups and tea cups, report cards and birthday cards. Grandpa had died when I was six, and I barely remembered him, so when I found a box with his name written on it, I opened it, looking for clues to the man. I found a photo of the two of them and I stared at, trying to imagine the still image come to life.
“What was Grandpa like, mom?” I asked.
“He drank a little too much,” said my mother, half-smiling. “But he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He once helped me nurse a baby bird with a broken wing for months. I thought mom would lose her mind. She was sure we were risking rabies. He loved people. He was always bringing home ‘strays’ at mealtimes. He volunteered at the food bank for years, and visited the Mi’kmaq Elders he knew with gifts every holiday. He gave away everything he had, and probably would have given more if mom didn’t hide things on him. He loved to dance. He was a terrible provider. But he was a great dad.”
In the box I had pulled the photo from was a yellowed, crumbling piece of paper. It looked like an old family tree. Most of it was in black ink, a fine, straight hand. But we quickly found Grandpa’s name, since next to it, in a more childish hand, was written, “Crow”. From this there was a line off to the right that said “Crow’s parents” at the end.
Mom and I stared at each other in puzzlement. Kim popped out of the bathroom she’d been cleaning and caught our expressions. “What’s up?”
We held out the family tree. As she read it in confusion, I looked back at the box. I lifted out another paper, a clipping from a newspaper. “INDIAN CHILD FOUND” was the headline, and the story said a runaway from the Shubenacadie residential school had been found dead. The whole story was barely a column inch.
Another paper. It was a handwritten page in a child's writing. It said STORY at the top.
“My best frned is Crow. Crow has shaved hair becas the preest made him becas he mite have flees. Crow sneeks out of scool to visit on Sadurdays. Crow loves sammichs with sugar and mustard like his mom made. Crow misses his mom and dos not like beng whiped. Crow and I play in teh woods.”
A few weeks later, Dave and I headed to the Reserve with the papers. It took about a half hour of phone calls for the Band Chief to find Anna, the granddaughter of Crow’s sister.
We headed to her door. I was so unsure of what to say.
“Should we have brought tobacco?” I asked Dave. “Relax, Sara,” he replied.
Upon our knock, Anna pulled the door open. She was holding a rosy-cheeked toddler who stared at us with dark eyes.
“Dave called from the office and said you were coming,” she explained, holding the door open. “I put the tea on.”
We entered and sat down in her kitchen. She settled the toddler into a buckled chair.
“I need to make this one a quick lunch, then we can chat.”
We watched her pull out two slices of white bread. Slather on the butter. Squirt the yellow mustard. Sprinkle the sugar. I felt tears well up.
As she put down the sandwich, she hastened to apologize. “He gets healthy food most of the time! This is a treat my mom got him going on. Sweet and sour sandwiches. Something she used to feed me.”
I stood up and hugged her, tears streaming down my face. I said, “It seems we are family, sort of.”
And Dave winked at the young boy munching the Crow Sammich, and said, “Finally. A mystery solved.”