When I was a kid, if a black cat ran out in front of our car, my mom would pull over to the side of the road. She would wait for someone else to drive by and cross the black cat’s path before we could go. If no one else drove by, we would turn around and go another way. Why? Because black cats had the power to send bad luck our way if we dared to be the first to cross their paths. There was no logic to this theory. There was just a story. And the story was enough for my mom.
I remember keeping my eye out the back window of our station wagon, waiting for the car that would allow us clearance to move on. Those moments were kind of exciting as a kid, when I witnessed my mom taking steps to keep our family’s luck safe. And it wasn’t just with black cats. When we spilled salt, the potential for bad luck arose, but my mom taught my sisters and me to throw a little salt over our left shoulders to neutralize the situation. We learned to never open an umbrella in the house, never walk under a ladder, never shake out a tablecloth or a rug after dark, and be careful not to crack mirrors. My mom taught us well, and because of her solid grasp on keeping our luck safe, we ended up being a lucky family. Our home was filled with happiness and we didn’t have to go through any terrible misfortune. (Just to keep my mom from cringing, I knocked on wood after writing that.)
When I left home and went away to college, I spent a lot of time re-thinking the things I’d learned in my childhood. I took a discerning look at the superstitions my mom had taught me, and I came to the conclusion that they were not only untrue, but quite silly. How could throwing salt over my shoulder or knocking on a piece of wood alter my life? I decided to rid myself of those wacky beliefs and take life rationally. As a college student, I sometimes went as far as opening my umbrella inside the house just to get it ready for when I stepped out into the rain.
Fast forward several years… I was pregnant with my second child and my due date was just days away. In the mail, I received a chain letter that said at the end: “Send this to 20 people or something bad will happen in a week.”
There I was, no longer superstitious—and yet this letter just ate at me! The timing was eerie. I knew in my rational brain that there was no truth to it, but any mom knows rationality gets thrown out the door those last days of pregnancy. I couldn’t take the chance that something bad could happen in a week—one of the most important weeks in my entire life. I knew I had to get those chain letters out to 20 people. The only problem was I didn’t want to risk mailing the letters. My baby could come any day, and what if the letters didn’t arrive in time?
My patient, understanding husband helped me do what I thought I had to do. Keeping his mouth shut, and wearing the slightest smile that said, “My wife is crazy but I still love her,” my husband drove me to the spot I requested. There, in an underground parking lot, with 20 copies of the chain letter, my husband and I went from car to car, tucking the letters under windshield wipers. My stomach was huge, but I managed to be quick and even discreet as I weaved through parked cars, getting the chain letters off my hands. Once the twentieth letter was on a windshield, I jumped back in our car, and took a huge breath. I held my hand over my tummy, feeling my baby kicking, knowing I’d successfully taken charge. Just like my mom had done when I was young, I was keeping my family’s luck safe. And it worked! My daughter’s birth went smoothly.
Since that incident, I was never again faced with such an extreme test of my superstitions. I am much more laidback about them now. I even have two black cats and I let them run in front of my car when I drive up to the house. I don’t follow all the rituals my mom once taught me, but I do have some of my own. I’ve been known to change seats at a volleyball game, hoping to change our team’s luck. I drink my tea from a lucky mug when I have an important day ahead. My husband claims it’s superstitious the way I never pass up a dandelion when we walk our dogs. I see them almost daily as I pick them and blow away their seeds to make a wish. I just consider that being hopeful, but maybe he’s right.
While random and nonsensical, superstitions do have one powerful thing going for them—they give the perception of control in this otherwise uncontrollable world. The illusion that putting chain letters on cars in an underground parking lot could keep my daughter safe at birth is ridiculous. I know that. Maybe my mom even knows how absurd it is to pull over to the side of the road because of a black cat. But sometimes a little, manageable, made-up story with invisible forces helping us out is comforting as we stand up against the immense, unmanageable realities of life. It’s like a small act of hope playing along with these fictions that promise good fortune. Since real life makes no such promises, it’s hard not to be wooed by superstitions at least now and then. I will admit that scientifically, dandelions have no power to make my wishes come true, but when I see them sprouting up from the earth, tempting me to make a wish, I always give in.