Service of Old Wives Tales

April 12th, 2010

Categories: Nostalgia, Old Wives Tales, Superstition


Do you avoid walking under ladders or cross the street when you see a black cat or shudder if you break a mirror or worry that you’ll have a fight if you spill salt on the tablecloth so you fling over your shoulder a pinch of the dropped grains to avert a spat?

clamshellMy husband wants to shoot me when I toss a steamed clam that in spite of the heat remains clamped shut. He made me sit still and do nothing but listen while he read aloud from “More Classic Italian Cooking” to hear what renowned cookbook author Marcella Hazan wrote to debunk what I’d been told: That you’ll get sick if you must pry open such a clam shell to get to the mollusk inside. Hazan, who grew up in a fishing village, wrote that being closed tight just proves that the clam is fresh. How did the myth I’d been told get going–because there are so few that stay closed while most open? This is no doubt why I am still suspicious of a closed steamed clam shell.

deadplant1I have a friend who believes that when a plant dies it means that someone you know will die. [She must have a green thumb.] I hadn’t heard of that one before but I tucked it in the back of my mind where it popped to the front this winter as a dear friend become increasingly sick and eventually died. Simultaneously my usually robust indoor garden, that for years shouldered cold temperatures and countless gray days with barely a shrug, suffered a lot of losses.

While on the subject of death, my husband told me that a moment after his Mom died, the woman who was caring for her opened the bedroom window to let her spirit go free.

I pick up coins and cross my fingers on behalf of a friend who is hoping something will happen because I love the concept that something can stimulate luck.  I also knock on wood to ensure that good–health, client, windfall, job offer–remains so.

These days we get piles of wild information over the Internet much of which seems too good to be true–and often is. There’s Snopes urban legends reference pages to confirm everything from news of a deadly computer virus, outrageous claims about a politician’s antics to a campaign to send a get well card to cheer a terminally sick child [who never existed].

Do you pick and choose the old wives tales and superstitions you believe in? What are some of your favorites and which have you found to be merely tales? Do some tales stick with you no matter what?


8 Responses to “Service of Old Wives Tales”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    Yes, I do remember a particular tale—from my mother, advising me on
    what kind of water to drink before I embarked on a Cub Scout hike in
    the woods. She insisted that it’d be okay to drink from a running
    stream as long as you drink from a spot struck by sunlight. “The
    sun’s rays will sterilize the water,” she said.

    It’s probably just as well that I didn’t do many hikes and always
    brought a canteen with me. To this day, when I see a rippling stream,
    I look for spots where sunlight strikes it…and smile.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a darling memory.

    If there was one thing my mother wasn’t it was a camper, but somehow she advised me [I went to overnight camp as of the age of five]: Only drink from a stream if I was at the very start of it –and there were no cows or other animals around.

    When I’d watch westerns as a kid I always wondered what it was like to sip the same water as a horse. And in my early 20s, I drank from my first and only stream–it was in the Banff/Lake Louise area of Canada.

  3. Nancy Farrell Said:

    My mother kept the world’s cleanest house so it was no surprise that her two most-quoted tales were also necessary rules for keeping a tidy house: No shoes on the table (or we’ll argue) and don’t open an umbrella indoors (it’s bad luck.)

    My house is not tidy at all but these are two things that drive me crazy. As luck would have it, my office building recently began offering bags for drippy umbrellas and it’s made me a lot happier on rainy days (plus the floors aren’t as slippery.)

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Your mom must have had a mudroom.

    I know about not opening umbrellas indoors, but that’s the only way for them to dry–and the way I heard it, you weren’t supposed to stand under an open umbrella in the house as that was bad luck…no doubt a tweak from the practical branch of the apartment dwellers assn. who didn’t trust that their umbrella would still be outside the door when, once dry, they planned to bring it inside!

  5. Linda Said:

    There is a website that lists tons of old wives tales. Some I had never heard of, and some I had. In any case, it is a fun read.

  6. NJS Said:

    I don’t believe any of them, and I find people who do, (like my now
    deceased mother-in-law who quoted them as gospel), rather stupid.

  7. Jeremiah Said:


    Superstitions and old wives tales are fun, and even if I don’t take them too seriously, I do avoid walking under ladders and worry about Friday, the 13th.

    What I find most fascinating is how these came to be. Each of them has a history, the understanding of which can open a window to look through to understand a little better how the human mind works. A generation ago there was considerable interest in this subject and the related subject of extrasensory perception among academics, and I recall that there were several research programs underway at various universities. Duke in particular, had a major program. I have no idea what research is taking place now, but even if none is, we shouldn’t dismiss superstitions out of hand.

    If I recall correctly, the people at Duke actually found out that individuals could influence the role of the dice through mental concentration, and I once flipped a penny heads 23 times in row. I was boy at the time, and I was trying to persuade a classmate, who was a Japanese exchange student and a mathematics wiz, that the law of averages didn’t work. He was absolutely dumbfounded, but went on to become the head of the mathematics department of a major Japanese university anyway.

    I’d be interested in knowing what the percentages were of the people who did walk under a ladder, versus those who didn’t, that had something bad happen to them. I’ll bet it’s higher than the law of averages would allow for!


  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I can’t answer your question about how many people ran into bad luck after they walked under a ladder but I can tell you that as a result of something that happened to me a zillion years ago, I worry about jinxing myself. In responding to a questionnaire sent by one of the schools I’d attended, I noted, quite accurately, that I had not had any severe illnesses in my lifetime. Not a week after that I was diagnosed with something horrendous. So even though I know one had nothing to do with the other, that I would still have come down with this thing even if I’d never answered the questionnaire, the moment and coincidence stay with me.

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