One: Avoid Turning Back
Driving home to Chicago from my mother’s house in Milwaukee, I felt the absence of something I needed, the way you feel a tingling on the back of your neck and just know someone is staring at you.
“I forgot something,” I told Ashlyn. I checked my left ring finger and my pockets while she looked in the backseat. Then I realized what was gone. “My phone. I left it there.”
“So turn around,” she said. “We’re only twenty minutes away.”
I looked at the road, searching, perhaps, for an excuse to keep going forward. I knew what Mama would say. But I needed my phone.
When Mama opened the door, she was holding my phone and wearing a scowl.
“Sofia, you idiot. You didn’t have to come back. I could have sent it to you.”
“It’ll be fine.” I stared at my reflection in the hall mirror, grateful that Ashlyn had waited in the car and couldn’t see me. According to Mama, looking in the mirror would reduce the bad luck of returning for a forgotten item.
Mama sighed, then kissed my cheek. “Drive slowly. Don’t tempt fate any more than you already do.”
Two: Fallen Silverware Signals Company
Mama’s folk beliefs might have made sense had she emigrated as an adult, but she left Russia when she was two months old and has lived in Wisconsin ever since. Even working as a science reporter hasn’t weakened her faith.
As a child, I never questioned her. If a piece of silverware fell on the floor, company was coming, and that was that. I once dropped a spoon on purpose in hopes of seeing my aunt. Mama said it didn’t work that way.
The grammatical gender of the utensils in Russian foretold the sex of the visitor. A knife, nozh, heralded a man; a spoon, lozhka, or fork, vilka, predicted a woman.
Papa complicated that theory. “My grandmother in Mexico believes the same thing,” he said one day as Mama tidied the kitchen for a heralded mystery visitor, “only the tenedor, the fork, is masculine.”
Mama was the Ellis Island of superstitions, so long as they felt right. After Papa’s revelation she didn’t know what to think of a fallen fork.
I had forgotten about the silverware when I brought Ashlyn home for the first time, during our junior year of college. Mama took in Ashlyn’s cropped hair and button-down shirt and gave a tight-lipped smile. She was courteous, but less warm than she’d been to my more feminine ex. I wanted to scream.
Later, Mama pulled me aside and said, “I knew she’d be butch. I dropped a fork today.”
Papa said he didn’t believe in luck, but he always bet on horse number eight at the racetrack. When Ashlyn played softball, she’d tap home plate four times. No one was immune to numbers. Mama, however, took it to an extreme.
Three was the most powerful. It could be lucky or unlucky, and only Mama seemed to know the difference.
Most of the photos from our Texas vacation showed me and my brother David squabbling. At the Alamo, Papa finally succeeded in getting us to pose.
“Marya, get in the picture.”
“We can’t have three. If three people are photographed together, one will die.”
As Papa raised his camera, I heard him mutter, “Well, nobody can delay it forever.”
Four: Perfection Invites Disaster
Mama’s emails to me in college always included a misspelled word, a comma splice, or another deliberate error. Only God is perfect, she said. Nothing tempts fate more than perfection. She filled our house with chipped furniture and mismatched dishes, to protect us.
When David was in sixth grade, his teacher convinced him superstitions weren’t real. “Ms. Markham says we only remember when it happens like the superstition says,” he told me. “If you look at all the times you see a black cat, or have a Friday the 13th, you see it doesn’t mean anything.”
I pondered this. It was true we didn’t always get visitors when someone dropped a spoon, at least not right away. And three was never my lucky number in dice games.
On my birthday, Mama brought my class a cake that said Happy birthday Soffia.
“They spelled your name wrong.”
“Doesn’t your mom know how to spell your name?”
“It’s not her fault. The baker probably screwed up.” I scraped off one F with a plastic knife. “There. Perfect.”
Mama glared at me from the corner.
After college, David joined Americorps and was sent to Appalachian Kentucky. He emailed various folk stories he’d heard, telling Mama his friends knew more superstitions than she did.
His emails were full of spelling mistakes. But David was never very good at spelling.
Five: Birds Augur Prosperity and Pain
Avian omens have existed since ancient times. The Aztecs and the Romans saw the future in birds, so naturally Mama did too. Different numbers of crows could mean anything from happiness to death. The only crow number I remember is one: bad news.
One day when I was sixteen, Mama saw a single black crow fly past the window.
“Sofia, check if the newspaper’s here.”
That was her trick: read the paper, which was sure to have tales of misfortune. That way the bad news wouldn’t be personal.
I went outside to retrieve the paper, but I took my time. I was long past believing in the predictions of crows.
When I returned, Mama was hanging up the phone. She crossed her arms. “That was Sabrina’s mother. She said you and her daughter were kissing? Why would she say that?”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Are you a lesbian?”
I felt hot and dizzy. I hadn’t planned to tell her until I got to college. I ran to my room, but Mama’s voice followed.
“Why couldn’t you have failed a class or experimented with drugs? Why does it have to be this?”
She did come around, eventually, even marched with a parents group at Pride. In one well-meaning disaster, she tried to set me up with a coworker’s daughter.
It took her a few years to get to that point. Three, in fact.
Six: Never Prepare for Joy
Mama didn’t pick out names for David and me until we were born. She refused friends’ offers of baby showers, worried that premature celebrations would invite tragedy. When my aunt proposed a party for her and Papa’s 25th anniversary, Mama turned that down, too.
A week before the anniversary, Papa died in his sleep of an aneurysm.
“There was nothing you could have done,” Ashlyn said when we heard. “Nothing anyone could have done.” She was crying, but my own grief was too numb for tears.
“I know.” Still, I wished there had been a sign. I would have knocked on wood a thousand times. A million times. Just in case.
Seven: Slip a Penny in the Bride’s Left Shoe
For our wedding Ashlyn wore a borrowed blue vest, an old watch, and new shoes.
“Superstitious, are you?” I said.
She winked at me. “Just traditional, darling.”
We skipped a lot of customs, though. Mama was shocked that we shared a dressing room the morning of the ceremony.
“It’s okay,” I said. “That’s for grooms not seeing brides.”
She frowned at our wanton fate-tempting.
Mama quavered for a moment, as I fumbled for a tissue. She waved it away and set two pennies on the dressing table.
“Wheat pennies, from the 1920s. Your father’s collection.”
Two pennies for two brides: the one in the suit, and the one in the dress. I wiped my eyes and hugged her. She pulled away, not about to jinx things with sentimentality, and admonished us to put the pennies in the left shoes, not the right.
“If you forget something,” she added, “don’t turn back.”