Superstition. Really. You and I both know it’s nonsense. If I break a mirror, it means seven years of bad luck. I’m going to change the course of history. The next seven years, which would otherwise have been clear sailing, are now going to be a time of tribulation? Finding a penny and picking it up means all the day you’ll have good luck? What if it happens in the middle of your seven years of bad luck? You get a day off? Maybe you have good luck all that day, but a day gets added onto your seven years of bad luck.
Every now and then I ring someone up at the store and the total comes to $6.66. Some people react with alarm. If they do, I take a penny off and make it $6.65. They appreciate that, but I know that they’re still uneasy.
The thing about superstition is that even if we’re not superstitious, and that describes me, we still can’t quite shake them. We get that little uncomfortable twinge if we do one of those things that brings bad luck. Let me see you walk under a ladder. Oh, I know you’ll probably do it. I’ll do it, too, but I won’t do it without that tiny little frisson somewhere between my shoulder blades, which really annoys me. Of course in the case of walking under a ladder it’s probably a good idea to look up and make sure there isn’t a guy up there who’s lost his grip on his hammer and is bobbling it just as you pass under him. Just my luck to try to make a point by defying superstition and get clonked on the head with a hammer.
If someone sneezes near me, what do I do? I’m uncomfortable saying God bless you. It feels presumptuous. If God chooses to bless you, He’ll bless you without my calling for the blessing. Am I to think that my speaking up on your behalf carries weight with Him? But there can sure be an uncomfortable silence after someone sneezes unless someone says something. So I do. God bless you. And it’s nicer than saying “Wow! Some sneeze!”
The word gesundheit takes a different approach. Gesundheit means “good health” and it’s thought that the practice of saying it when someone sneezed began during the plague years and was said by the sneezed upon, not wishing good health to the sneezer, but to himself. Superstitious maybe, but at least a little more practical.
At a family dinner at my Grandmother’s house many years ago, I picked up a salt shaker, the cap of which had been loosened by my brother as a joke, and when I tipped the salt shaker to sprinkle salt on my mashed potatoes, the cap fell off onto my plate. Salt poured out and I sat there surprised and embarrassed with a nearly empty salt shaker in my hand and a mound of salt half on my plate and half on the table cloth. Grandma said “Land o’ goshen! Toss some of it over your shoulder, quick.” I did as I was told. I grabbed a handful, tossed it over my shoulder and into the face of my brother, who, sitting next to me, had leaned over behind me to hide his face and stifle his laughter. It got in his hair, pretty well filled up his left ear, and got in his left eye. Which hurt, and he carried on about it.
He deserved it. He was the one who had unscrewed the top of the salt shaker. He’d done wrong, and justice was swift. Divine retribution. It had nothing to do with me. I was only the instrument. Or was it just coincidence? Maybe it was just his bad luck. I’ll leave that to you. I learned, when things quieted down, that it’s bad luck to spill the salt and the way to ward off the bad luck is to toss a pinch of the salt over your shoulder. Your left shoulder, not your right. That’s because the devil lurks over your left shoulder and when you toss the salt, you toss it in his eyes. In this case, my brother got in the way, and the salt didn’t get in the devil’s eyes, so I wasn’t sure the tossing had worked to ward off my bad luck. Unless, of course, my brother is actually the… Hmmm, that could explain a lot.
Anyway, I was concerned. I kept an eye out for any bad luck for the next few days. No bad luck ever came my way. At least not that I could ever connect to the salt episode. I asked at the time why it was bad luck to spill the salt, but there’s no satisfactory answer to that question, so of course, no satisfactory answer was forthcoming. It’s just bad luck, I was told, “Don’t you know that?” “Don’t you know that,” is actually offered up as a kind of proof. You should know it because everybody knows it and if everybody knows it, it’s true. Like the earth being flat.
There are, of course, other good luck superstitions apart from picking up pennies. Did you know that if the bride kisses a chimney sweep on the morning of her wedding, it’s good luck? If a cat eats out of her shoe in the week before her wedding day it’s good luck? I bet you didn’t know that if you kiss a storekeeper any time, it’s good luck.
I know some very sensible people who take it all seriously. I don’t. I broke a mirror once. Nothing ever happened. I’ve walked under ladders. Black cats have crossed my path. I’ve opened umbrellas indoors. Nothing ever happened, and nothing ever will. Knock on wood.
Chuck is the owner of the Teago General Store in South Pomfret. Find more of his stories, poems and other writing at www.chuckgundersen.com
This article first appeared in the October 6th print edition of the Vermont Standard.