It might have been a Saturday with both of us home at lunchtime. I would have been small, maybe seven. She probably made me a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise and a slice of tomato on Lady Betty bread and poured me a glass of milk. Lady Betty smiled at me from the outside of the white plastic bread bag, her hair in a curly brown up do.
“Grandma says bread is like the Host,” my mother said, holding my discarded crusts in her outstretched hand. She meant the communion wafer, transformed at Sunday Mass into the body of Christ. Grandma was Mom’s best friend and confidante, the one she turned to when life was hard and there were no easy answers. She had come to Amsterdam, New York at the turn of the twentieth century, and now lived in a second floor flat, with no telephone or hot running water, seeing no need for either. During the Great Depression, each of her six children, one by one, left school as soon as they were old enough to look for work. Nobody wasted so much as a crust of bread.
An old Polish proverb says, “A guest in the home is God in the home.” Most of Grandma’s guests were family, but as soon as anyone crossed her doorstep she scurried to the cupboard for cake, donuts, potato chips, any food she could offer. For this wife of a grocery clerk, store-bought food meant she had money.
She taught me to say chleb, the Polish word for bread, as she sliced a fresh loaf, giving it her full attention, making of the act a little ritual of gratitude. I never saw her toss away a single morsel.
As I chewed on my crust-less sandwich, my mother stood beside me wearing her homemade skirt and a white blouse. Beneath her curly brown hair, the look on her face was serious but kind.
“We can feed the birds,” she said. We tore the crusts into little pieces and piled them on my empty plate. I imagined tiny beaks happily munching, thanks to Mom, Lady Betty and me. Mom turned the worn brass handle on the back porch door, pulled it open and solemnly handed me the plate. I carried it as reverently as I had seen the altar boys carry the golden paten of consecrated hosts on Sunday morning.
Then Mom and I threw handfuls of the torn bread out the porch window. I waited for little birds to fly into our yard and discover the feast, but none came and quickly bored, I went back inside. The next morning, when I looked out the window, the bread was gone. Shy birds, I thought, like me, but at least they won’t go hungry.
After I grew up and married, I learned to bake bread from a cookbook. “All natural” was the way to go, in food as well as childbirth. There would be no store-bought bread in my home. That approach lasted a year or two, until I had a full time job and a long commute. Because it was so easy to buy a loaf at the supermarket, I declared bread baking a skill for hippies and earth mothers who did not work outside the home. We met friends for dinner at restaurants, everyone too busy to cook.
At home, my little boys left their sandwich crusts on their plates, just as their mother did long ago. You can guess what I told them.
“We don’t throw away bread,” I said. “We can feed the birds.” I showed them how to tear the crusts into pieces and scatter them on the grass for our feathered guests. Sometimes they even stayed to watch the birds peck at it.
Now that our nest is empty, bread is a “high carb” item my husband and I have cut back on. We keep our whole-wheat loaf in the fridge, but it still goes stale. Nobody wants the ends, dented and misshapen in the plastic bag. Outside my window, five bird feeders hold sunflower seeds, split peanuts and calcium-rich suet for strong eggshells. I have a discount club membership at the birdseed store. But none of that feels quite so holy as the simple act of tossing breadcrumbs on the grass.