My mom was a witch. I mean, not in the literal sense (although you might not want to ask my junior high friends; that’s an unfairly rough period to judge). But she was super-superstitious. I spent my entire life watching her toss salt over her shoulder and muttering nutso things all the time. Not the typical warnings of black cats and broken backs; more like ominous forewarnings of fate misfortunes, like having babies with horns or causing a wedding day catastrophe all because you’d carelessly added oregano into your red sauce.
When my high school boyfriend gave me pearl earrings for Christmas she sniffed, “Pearls mean tears.” She said nothing else.
In fairness, he was kind of a jerk and her spidey sense for Wrong Boys was keenly aware of this way before my adolescence picked up on it but her remark alone clearly seeped into my subconscious. I’ve never really been a fan of that jewelry (and, for this Long Island girl, ignoring that accessory was an ’80s struggle for sure. Thanks, Madonna). But the truth is that boy caused A LOT of tears so who knows, maybe she was right.
But there were others, and most came void of any logic or rationale. You just obeyed.
Never put your shoes on the table. I do not. Never have.
Never open your shower gifts with scissors. Think that’s easy? Try it.
Don’t wear black when you’re pregnant. I never really heeded this until I was strolling through NY’s San Gennaro feast in the ninth month of my first pregnancy. Now, this is a typical street festival, where booths and food trucks line the avenue and you gain weight from the smells alone. It was summer, and right before the start of my maternity leave. I was wearing a spectacular solid black, A-frame swing dress that I’d ordered from a (gasp!) catalog. It was perfect for my unforgiving girth and I could wear it even after the baby came. Back in the pre-Amazon day you seriously took your chances with mail order clothing but this was a winner. It made my bloated brain convinced I looked like Audrey Hepburn. I bought two: the other was hot pink.
As I strolled the streets with a group of co-workers a very old woman started motioning to me from her food stand. I smiled and started making my way towards her (free sausage sample? All in, ma’am!). As I got closer I could see was definitely not smiling back, but rather she was shaking her head. She began wagging a wrinkled, crooked finger at me and started speaking in Italian. She gestured to my overall physique, kept muttering things I did not understand and made the sign of the cross before shooing me away in disgust.
I wore the hot pink number for the remaining weeks of the pregnancy and never (ever) told my mother. (Spoiler alert, the baby arrived without horns).
Crazy, right? This odd and off-hand advice was naturally followed up with Don’t dress your baby in black so you can bet your sweet ass my kids have never looked like those sleek Kardashian kids. Good grief, so not worth the risk.
I know all these tales of caution were the stuff of folklore handed down from her own mother. Once in childhood my grandmother told me to never sleep on my left side. You’ll crush your heart, she whispered. Imagine a little girl waking up in a sweaty panic any time she woke in the middle of night to find she’d shifted to that position. Gah!
For most of my life I took this all in and didn’t push back much, because frankly I didn’t have the gumption (ahh, old-fashioned elder respect) or Google (ahh, ’90s) to argue.
But every now and then in adulthood I did.
My mom would always affirm odd numbered years were bad. Whenever something tragic occurred she’d remark knowingly, Well, it is an odd year….
I’d had it. With all the respect I could muster, I politely yet adamantly refused to acquiesce. I pointed out that, in addition to getting married in an odd year (30 years in a few weeks *smugly types with emphasis*), all four of my kids were born in odd years.
She drifted into thought for a few moments before nodding and smiling, You’re right, she whispered. I’m sure she was taking inventory of all the endless blessings that came from her obedient daughter shielding her grandchildren from all that ebony clothing.
She shrugged and went on about her business, indifferent that I’d taken down her stink eye. Nonsense averted.
Boy, oh boy. Imagine my field day of smugness if she were here today having witnessed 2020.