If you accidentally spill some salt, do you discreetly throw a pinch over your shoulder? Or perhaps you forward those ubiquitous good luck angel emails to ten of your “closest” friends, just in case. And what about those cracks in the sidewalk… just how is your mother’s back, anyway?
It seems to me that more people suffer from the repetitive and bizarre affliction of superstition than not, but I have to admit that at times I am as guilty as most. However of late I’ve become interested in how these beliefs come about. But rather than do real scholarly research — who has the time and truthfully, I’m just too lazy for that — I have arrived at my own theory: that many of these old traditions are based on simple practicalities. They were a way of instilling sensible behaviors early on in life.
For instance, my Puerto Rican aunt told me you should never place your pocketbook on the floor. “The money will flow out,” was her belief. I considered what might be behind this one. There is the issue of being sanitary: a purse that’s been on the floor will be carrying all sorts of germs on its bottom. But then there is also the safety issue. I know this isn’t as much an issue in Vermont, but if you consider the crime rate in Puerto Rico, a purse on the floor is not a good idea in general, at least in a public place.
“Ay Annie, when you leave the house, you can’t go back in if you forgot something! It’s mala suerte!” My friend Jane admonished me in hushed and reverent tones. Okay, this one completely baffles me, because if I were to take this to heart, I would never have anything I need and my life would be chaos (well, at least more chaotic than it already is). I have to go back at least once, EVERY SINGLE TIME I leave the house. I mean, really! Was the person who invented this one a mother? I don’t think so! Anyway, I thought the history of this one might also be safety. Going back through your door opens you up for someone to follow.
Never put shoes on the bed. Again, this begs the interpretation of a plea of unsanitary. Lord only knows where those soles have been anyway, and I can’t imagine you’d want remnants of it on the bed.
If you keep making that face it will get frozen like that. I love this one. The fact that I almost bought this as a child makes me laugh out loud. From the vantage point of motherhood, I have to chalk this one up to simple social control: my mother was probably embarrassed by my behavior. Or maybe it’s some kind of parental in-joke that is passed on from generation to generation. If so, it’s stopping with me. I have yet to say it to my son and he spends half his waking hours making faces. Wait. Maybe I should rethink this.
Walking under ladders. Okay, as a painter’s wife, this one makes perfect practical sense as well. I’ve seen many a ladder slip, fall over, or upend its paint can from on high, so why would you want to walk under one? And doesn’t this theory make so much more sense than the triangle being the shape of the pyramids, the holy trinity or the gallows? I mean, really.
Breaking a mirror. Now I don’t know whether YOU think mirrors are magic or can see your soul in them and are concerned about shattering it, but I would be more concerned with the sharp pieces of reflective glass. But hey, that’s just me.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the passing on of traditions. I’m a cuentista (storyteller) who is trying to carry forward the tales, beliefs and history of my family, but when something is detrimental I think it should be passed along with care. I remember standing frozen in the middle of a sidewalk in Leonia, New Jersey, surrounded by a spider web of cracks in the concrete, certain that with just one step I was going to condemn my mother to a life of immobility. Kids are so literal, so I try to present this kind of tradition as a silly quirk, actions done with a sense of fun.