Black Cats, Ladders, and Sidewalk Cracks
Superstition was a fundamental guiding principle in my grandmother's life, along with Catholicism, her home, and how she was perceived by others. She was known to me and my little brother as Nana – a holdover, I believe, from the childhood of her husband from the Black Country in Northern England.
It's important to know that our relationship with Nana was not the occasional visit with a cuddly grandparent. No, Nana and Papa were surrogate parents. We lived with them and our mother in a too-small, two-bedroom, one-bath home on a block of modest homes in the heartland of the Midwest. To say that privacy, for anyone, was a challenge would be an understatement. For me, it was imagined the tiny bathroom where, for some reason, I thought that singing at the top of my little lungs would be heard by no one because I was alone, and the door was locked.
For seventeen long years, I would sleep in the same double bed with my mother, less than a foot away from my little brother's single bed. The rest of our days (especially in brutal Minnesota winters) were spent in the company of each other, around an oval pecan dining table or in the adjoining living room, at first listening to the Lone Ranger on the RCA console radio, then in front of a black and white TV set and, finally, in front of full-color network television.
But most things in our cloistered little house didn't change. Among them was Nana's sense of destiny. Of right and wrong and retribution from the universe should we, in some fashion, offend it. I, in particular, had a way of triggering bad luck in the family unit. Spilling salt, an abundant staple in the Minnesota diet back then, was one of my repeat offenses. Nana watched me like a hawk through all three meals so that she could incant a few words to reverse the curse that would invite the devil into our house to steal our souls.
Thanks to her (and Catholic guilt), I suffered repeatedly when I stepped on a crack and expected to 'break my mother's back.' (Until, as a teenager, I sometimes stomped on cracks in the sidewalk). And there was the admonition, "Don't laugh; it means you are going to cry." This one lingered in the back of my mind for many decades (Okay, it still does).
The family unit never-ever opened an umbrella under the roof of the house (including the front porch). This was an unquestioned rule adhered to by every one of us. No matter how much it poured or how hard, umbrellas were dutifully closed before the screen door was opened. I never understood the rationale behind this, but Nana wasn't one to explain any of the things she knew for sure to be true. Much later, I learned that this belief likely arose from the Victorian Era when steel-ribbed umbrellas with spring triggers were invented and resulted in some eyes being poked out.
Let me interject here how my knowledge of this explanation led me to demonstrate how to pronounce 'Umbrella' while teaching a class of immigrants to speak English. I popped open my rainbow-colored umbrella in front of the class. One of my students gasped, "No, no teacher, that's bad luck!" I smiled and then, in a professorial manner, explained what the word "superstition" meant. I felt extremely clever for making the most of a teaching moment.
The next morning, my husband and I awoke to find three of the tires on our car slashed, and the windshield shattered. When I told my ESL class the next day, the same student, Victoria, gave me a multi-lingual, "I told you so" look. And I saw Nana standing with her arms crossed over her puffy bosom, grinning.
Clearly, as a mature adult, I'd failed to breach the distance between fact and folklore. I still think about Nana when a black cat crosses my path. When my nose itches. If I break a mirror.
One of my most vivid memories of the power of Nana is when our little town, a flat spot right along the Mississippi River, was threatened by a tornado (a common and exciting occurrence every summer in our flat space of Minnesota). This particular warning set off the city's deafening air raid siren (a leftover from the 1950s). Before heading for the basement with its coal bin and furnace, Nana walked around the house with a vial of Holy Water she'd acquired from our church, and, priestlike, dipped her fingers in a small bowl and blessed every open window in our house with the Sign of the Cross (note I capitalize words here that do not call for capitalization – out of caution). At each window, she muttered words I didn't understand, though I think they were Polish – the native language of her family. Then she herded us all down the wooden stairs to the basement with its cold concrete floor and single bare lightbulb, where we listened to the howl and roar of wind until the all-clear siren split the dead calm that fell as the twister moved on.
No broken windows, no roofs tossed to the ground, just our sheltered family emerging from the damp basement led by Nana, whose Holy Water rite had saved our house and, most likely, the entire town.
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