During the years my uncles were writing their LOOKING BACK column in the mid 1980’s, they often compared the years they were growing up in the 1930’s, often pontificating as people do as they age and begin to look back over the years. Of course every generation thinks the one following them is neither as morally upright nor as as blessed with common sense as THEY. As I’ve pointed out before, neither uncle was trained in writing styles, so subject matter tended to waver within each column. In this one, first published October 29, 1987, Uncle Earl reminisces about superstitions handed down from generation to generation as well as the state of the world from where he observed.
I was recently thinking of my younger years during the 1930’s, and comparing the present, to see if in my own mind there had been much progress in humanity and society as a whole. I came to the conclusion that things have changed, and time has changed as far as my circle of friends and small segment of society is concerned We have much better housing, more clothing, and very much more variety in food.
Television, which could have been an instrument in making society a better educated and better behaved society, has failed miserably. Television has deteriorated in just a few short years to where it is almost disgusting to turn it on. Instead of educating society for betterment, it has done the opposite. Almost every program teaches selfishness, mediocrity, and almost always violence and lack of respect for authority.
In other ways, we as a society have changed in subtle and not very obvious ways. We are, I believe, a little less superstitious but not too much so. I believe we know most of the superstitions we learned in our youth have been proven to be nothing more than superstitions, but we’re reluctant to let go of them completely—just in case. Some of the superstitions that were abundant during our youth are enumerated herewith, and I believe everyone will notice that most of them are still around and are being passed on to following generations.
Here are a few of the superstitions we heard as a child:
If you have a nose bleed, put a dime under your tongue and it will stop the bleeding.
A dime or a penny tied around your ankle will ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
Dropping a dishcloth means someone will visit and will be hungry. So, to keep company from coming it was essential to shake the dishcloth thoroughly.
If you see a buzzard’s shadow, it’s going to rain.
If a cow shakes his/her hind foot, it was a sure sign of rain.
If a rabbit or black cat crosses the road in front of you, you were going to have bad luck, unless you were in an automobile. In that case, you could block out the bad luck by making a cross or “X” on the windshield.
If a crescent moon was tilted, it was a sign of pouring out water, thus imminent rain.
If it rains before seven a.m., it will stop before eleven a.m.
If it thunders before seven a.m., it will rain before eleven a.m.
If you planted a cedar or chinaberry tree, you’d die when it got big enough to shade your grave.
If you right hand itches, you’re going to shake hands with a stranger.
If you left hand itches, you’re going to get some money.
If you nose itches, someone is coming with a hole in their britches.
Drinking tea made from a sassafras tree after the buds had swelled in the spring, you’d go blind.
A whistling woman and a crowing hen would both come to a terrible end.
If the sun shines while it’s raining, the devil is beating his wife and it will rain the same time tomorrow.
If a boy buried a lock of a girl’s hair under the back doorsteps, she would eventually marry him.
If you tickle a baby’s feet, it will stutter when it learns to talk.
Eating fried or boiled chicken feet would make you beautiful.
Putting a paper bag over your head will stop hiccoughs. (I’ve seen lots of people who should have hiccoughs. They would look a lot better with a sack over their head.)
Another sure cure for hiccoughs is to repeat three times, “three cups, three tea cups will cure hiccoughs.”
There are many more superstitions, I’m sure, that are still being instilled in youth today. One thing I have noticed in the changes over the years is that it seems that most of the devil related things are still around, while truth, honesty, integrity, morality, and the simple life of love and trust, have just about vanished from society as a whole.
I can remember when a man’s word was his bond, and a handshake on an agreement was a contract, but now everything has to be in writing (usually at the cost of paying a lawyer), then people try to renege on their promises. How much more change in this direction can society stand?
POSTSCRIPT: At least four more come to my mind as I read this list: Don’t pick up a toad because you’ll get warts if he pees on you; if a mourning dove coos in the vicinity of a house with a sick person in it, they’ll die soon; if you sweep after sunset you sweep away your chances of finding a husband; and red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning, red sky in the evening is a sailor’s grieving. There must be a basis for these old beliefs somewhere in history.
One of the things that occurs to me as I read this essay all these years later is how much my aunt–the one who was married to this uncle–loved watching TV game shows. She was also fond of soap operas and most dramas, and I suspect my uncle was not above watching himself from time to time, although he did have reading material at hand, and was terribly fond of criticizing a lot of things in the world.
For much of the time I knew him, as an older teenager and until his death six years ago, he was an avowed atheist. I used to tell him, my father too, that it was easy being atheist when you’re young, but when you start getting old, most people want to buy a little insurance, so they start going to church again.
The last time I saw Earl, he was surrounded by the remaining members of the nine brothers save one, who was also terminally ill at the time though none of us knew. He was living out the last few days of his life sitting in a huge reclining rocker. I’ve often wondered if he changed his mind about God at the last minute as he was so close to knowing all the answers to the things we’d argued about over the years. Did he believe maybe just a little those last few days? Had he opted for a little insurance? Just in case?
Delightful. If I had known, I would have been eating chicken feet all along.
That generation was mostly raised as strict Christians, and I found it interesting that many lapsed in one way or another. Even my grandmother, who was born in the late 1800’s and raised Presbyterian, always said she “had Unitarian leanings.” Her son never went to church, and my mother only went when she wasn’t married. That I found facinating.
I like how so many of those superstitions involve people coming over to visit or people you’ll be coming into contact with. Who wants a hungry visitor? Shake that dishcloth hard! Incidentally, we frequently drop dishcloths here in Queens, but we have almost no visitors.
I think I would have been very un-beautiful because the thoughts of chicken feet … blech! Even I can remember when a man’s handshake was his bond. Wouldn’t that make this world a better place if more people were honest?