An ounce of caution

Published 12:08 am Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I have lived the better part of my life knowing a few simple tales as truths:

  • It’s bad luck to open an umbrella indoors;
  • If you step on a crack, you will break your mother’s back;
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away;
  • Don’t walk under a ladder;
  • If you break a mirror, you will have seven years bad luck;
  • Pat someone on the back while they are crossing their eyes and their face will stick that way;
  • Ladybugs in your home bring good luck;
  • If a black cat walks across your path, it is bad luck;
  • Throw back the first catch of the day and you will have luck fishing the rest of the day;
  • Pulling out a gray hair will cause 10 more to grow back in its place;
  • Bad luck will follow the spilling of salt unless a pinch is thrown over one’s shoulder (the left, I believe);
  • And my personal favorite, if your ears are burning, someone is talking about you.

I have faithfully taught my children all of these tales. The bulk of my knowledge in this area of old wives’ tales was passed down to me from my grandmother, although school-yard children were responsible for a few and one junior-high English teacher, who was a retired nun named Ms. Atkelski.

Ms. Atkelski was a tall, large woman who intimidated most of her students. She didn’t seem to have a kind bone in her body, which left us questioning if she was ever really a nun. One day, mid-lesson, she stopped dead in her tracks and made the sign of the cross as an ambulance went by our school. You could clearly hear the siren. She then did some kind of spitting thing, maybe it was on an imaginary cross, I haven’t a clue, and said a prayer. She explained to our class that every time you hear an ambulance siren or see an ambulance, you need to make the sign of the cross and say a little prayer for those inside. I am not sure if that qualifies as an old wives’ tale or an old nun’s tale, but it certainly left its mark on me.

While driving my son to school one day, an ambulance was fast approaching in the opposite lane. I started to make the sign of the cross and glanced over to see he was making one, too. His head was bowed and his lips were silently moving. We looked at each other and chuckled, and he said, “Well, every bit helps, right?”

You won’t catch me killing a ladybug in my house; I will leave it to crawl in my window sill. I won’t pull out a gray hair; I will just dye it and those around it. When the saltshaker falls over, I will throw salt over both shoulders because I simply cannot remember which shoulder, left or right. And, finally, I will make the sign of the cross when I hear a siren because every bit helps.

I am not sure why people of science and sense still pay attention to many of these tales, but I, for one, cannot ignore them.

Besides, who wants to answer to those “old wives” or nuns when you aren’t minding their tales?

A Yankee with a Southern soul, Gillian Pollock is a wife, mother of two ever-challenging children and director of Christian Formation at Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.