Growing up in Italy I learned a lot of “remedies” for anything from the evil eye to attracting a good husband. My mother and grandmother had an interpretation for every event, minor or major, from throwing away a bloody rag without wrapping it properly first (the devil will come and eat it, and then you won’t marry as a virgin) to dropping a scissor that stuck to the floor (for certain strife in the family, maybe even death).
Recently, I started to collect these sayings, remedies and superstitions, in part because I’m a bit nostalgic for my past, in part because my forthcoming book, Safe in Your Head, incorporates these sayings and superstitions into the stories. (My “hook” for the book is “stories, remedies and recipes for women during wartime,” which pretty much sums up what it’s all about.) I’ve found a few really good ones, like a remedy for keeping ghosts from haunting a home that involves a nail collected from a casket. It comes from an old tradition dating back to the Roman Empire. But mostly these are superstitions that my mother and my grandmother observed with the same attitude and vigor with which they might have observed, for example, wearing a hat or a veil in church, because one’s head must never be exposed in the house of God, or crossing themselves and curtseying before the altar to show respect.
I thought that I had gathered a good bunch of these old ways and knew most of the ones my mother knows. I was wrong. Yesterday, she called me to say, “I dreamt your grandmother. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers, fresh with dew still on the petals. Flowers from dead people means death in the family. One year for each flower.” From this, she surmised that she has three years left to live.
As she was telling me this, all I could think to say was, “Ma dai!” which made my husband laugh: it’s one of his favorite of my expressions. (It means, practically, Come on!, literally it translates to, But give!) because of the way it sounds: ma daaaaaiiiiiii. I kept saying, ma daaaaiiii. Finally I told her what I really thought: “You’re the worst dream prophet I know. You’ve never, ever gotten a dream right.”
For years, she prophecized catastrophies involving mostly harm to my brother, with dreams about ships and ports and strangers carrying large white sacks. She prophecized a baby for me the year I was operated for fibroids. I don’t have children. Right before my trip to Guatemala years ago, she called me on the phone, begging me not to go.
“I dreamt of a temple,” she said. “It was beautiful, and powerful, and I knew it represented you. It all crumbled and fell. Destroyed!” I was afraid for weeks, afraid as I boarded planes and buses from Antigua to Guatemala to Tikal and elsewhere, looking over my shoulder for terrorists and rapists and gun-slingers and kidnappers.
I can never really dismiss my mother’s psychic abilities entirely, though. She has acquired a reputation for being a witch — or at least, witch-like. She’s very good with curses, for example. One time she fought with a contractor over the faulty installation of a vanity mirror and a sink. After he left, refusing to make the changes she requested, she told us about the argument, then flicking her eyes sideways and pushing her index finger forward, she muttered, “I hope he falls and breaks a leg.” The next time we saw the contractor, he was limping around on crutches, his foot in a cast.
Another instance of witchiness for which she earned her reputation was when one Sunday morning my father (a skeptic and an atheist) woke up early to go to his weekly tennis match. She was still half asleep when she heard him moving around the room, gathering his tennis accoutrements.
“Where are you going?” she demanded.
“To tennis,” he reminded her.
“What tennis? There’s no tennis. It’s raining.”
My father swears it was a beautiful sunshiny day, not a cloud in the sky. He moved aside the curtains to show her: “It’s not raining.”
“It is, now,” she said, and rolled under the blankets to go back to sleep.
Moments later, a crack of thunder. Rain spraying the windows thickly.
Baffled, my father told that story for years.