My mother is 93 and still of good mind. She grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, but plenty of her ancestors were from up in the “hollers.” I like to visit her just before she goes to sleep at night. She snuggles in under the covers, and I curl up next to her. My dog, Pixie, then jumps up on the bed and noses in between us to fall asleep. Then Mom and I talk about things that interest her. Anything but world affairs, anyway; she’s horrified by what she sees on the news. Like most of us, she dislikes war and strife, but she sometimes worries herself sick about “what’s happening to the world.” I don’t want to send her off to sleep with those thoughts, so I save that conversation for mornings.
She likes to talk about girlish things sometimes. Like the little black slippers her father bought her, or the teacher she had all through grammar school. We like to giggle too, over stories of old boyfriends or funny things that happened in school.
And now and then she’ll remember some old superstition she heard as a child. One little boy at her school looked up in sky one morning when there was a sprinkling of rain, saw that the sun was shining through the clouds and, eyes wide, proclaimed, “It’s rainin’ and the sun is shinin,’ someone’s gonna die ‘afore the sun goes down.” She’s told me that one many times, putting on her best Blue Ridge mountain accent, and it always makes her smile. (Me too.)
The other evening she remembered one I hadn’t heard before:
“Wash your face at the dawn of day
in the field on the first nine days of May
and your freckles will go away.”
She said her sister made her go along to perform this ritual as as a young teen. “But it didn’t work,” she said, “I told her it wouldn’t.”
I like those old superstitions, and I know lots of readers like them too. So now and then I’ll collect a few and send them your way.
In honor of my mother’s delight at talking about girly things, here are some girly superstitions:
If your cornbread is rough, your husband’s face will be rough.
To brush your hair after dark will bring sorrow.
If a butterfly lands on you, you will get a new sweetheart.
To make yourself think clearly, put a ring or bracelet on your head.
If you eat burnt bread, your hair will become curly.
If a part of the hem of your skirt is turned up, and you spit on it, you will have a joyful day.
There’s often a shred of logic in superstitions: If you wet a crease you can then “iron” it with your hand over a flat surface. If you want to focus your attention (think clearly), any little trick that you believe will work, will probably help some. And if your cornbread is rough, you certainly won’t get the most handsome cornbread-lovin’ man in the village.
I love superstitions. They’re amusing, perplexing, and often dark and frightening. Their origins are so far from our lives today that we can hardly imagine how they came to be. I know there’s a lot of behavior shaping (“If your cornbread is rough….”) There’s also a lot of fear of the unknown, and a lot of blind hope from people who may otherwise have very little reason for hope.
It’s common to think that belief in superstition if a consequence of ignorance. While that is no doubt true in some cases, I don’t think it’s primarily ignorance that makes people believe in superstition. I believe it’s powerlessness. If you have no money, no education, no suitors, you can at least have hope, and superstitions give concreteness of a sort to hope.
I have loads of superstitions collected in a folder in the back of my file cabinet. I’ve written them down as I’ve heard them, from books, movies, people in different parts of the country, and my mother. I want to share them with you, and so every now and then I’ll do a Superstition Day.
If you have any superstitions you’d like me to add to my lists on Superstition Days, please send them along to me.
May your cornbread always be smooth!