In our house, when I was growing up, even the most innocuous nonevent came laden with portent and prophecy. If you dropped a knife, it meant a man was coming to the house. Drop a spoon, a woman was on her way. (Forks, apparently, were gender-neutral.)
If your left palm itched, it meant you were about to come into money. An itchy foot meant you would soon walk on new ground. An itchy back sent mixed signals because it foretold either a whippin’ or a huggin.’
That was about it for good omens.
My mother’s world, formed in her Appalachian childhood of the 1930s and carried intact to the flatlands of Lubbock, was short on good-luck omens but full to the brim with bad ones. Even though she could have told me it was good luck to wear two shoes at all times, she chose instead to tell me I was hexed if I didn’t.
One of her strictest superstitions was the practice of sitting down for at least 10 seconds when one of us went back into the house to retrieve something. Mama always reminded us to sit down and count to 10 before coming back out. And, for God’s sake, please leave the house through the same door you entered!
To this day, I believe Mama had a hand in writing the Creedence Clearwater Revival song Bad Moon Rising. Literary as well as superstitious, she would actually say things such as, “It’s an ill wind that bodes no good” as a portent of stormy weather, or “The spirits are restless” to justify skipping a trip or to forbid me from an otherwise justifiable pleasure.
At some point, I’d had enough. It riled me that Mama was well-read and smart about so many things but insisted on divining the shape of things to come through birdsongs or how you handled your silverware. “Superstition ain’t the way,” I’d tell her in my more civil complaints, quoting Stevie Wonder. Other times I flat-out mocked her.
Once, when she was looking for something in the back of the silverware drawer and accidentally pulled the whole drawer out and every fork, knife and spoon hit the floor with a teeth-rattling clatter, I wailed in mock terror: “Oh no! The whole town is coming to our house! And it’s a mess!”
Mama explained why that was not funny while I picked up and washed every piece of the cursed silverware. As fate would have it, some folks from church dropped by that very evening. Mama explained how their unexpected arrival was a divine message meant for me and me alone: Don’t mock your mama.
My dad managed to stay neutral on these issues. He always sat down when he had to go back in the house, and I never once saw him walk around with one shoe on and one shoe off. “I don’t have infinite knowledge of the universe,” he explained when I asked him why he put up with it. “It doesn’t hurt anything and, besides, why take chances?”
Soon after I left home and started living on my own, it came as a stunner when I found myself sitting down for at least 10 seconds whenever I had to go back inside the house, and I never once went around with one shoe on and one shoe off for more than five seconds. Even as a parent, I sometimes evangelized much in the style of my mother.
One day when my daughter was 8 or 9, I actually chastised her for walking around the house half-shod. Bad luck, I explained, walking around with one shoe on. She had heard this nonsense before, but now she challenged me with, “Explain yourself.”
And so I did, or at least I started to, but my voice faltered under my daughter’s calm, unblinking stare. She crossed her arms, tapped her foot, rolled her eyes and waited for me to finish.
Trying to regain a measure of authority, I concluded with, “Hey, we don’t have infinite knowledge of the universe. It might be true. Why take chances?” but my voice trailed away as soon as I realized I’d just quoted each of my parents from their side of the issue, not mine.
My daughter put the matter into perspective, much as I once tried to do. “Don’t be such a drama dude, Dad. I’m just looking for my other shoe. OK? I don’t need to know all about the universe for that.”
I spied her other shoe and fetched it so she wouldn’t have to, but I was beaming inside, thinking, “Ah, that’s my girl!”
Later, I interpreted the incident as a personal breakthrough—an omen! The bad moon of superstition was waning now. A jinx was broken. Hallelujah!
Knock on wood.
Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.