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Some families had spirited discussions about world peace or presidential politics. My family fought over lunchmeat.

“Two slices of salami don’t make a sandwich,” my mother would tell me. “You take more salami.”

“I don’t want more salami.”

“Take two more slices,” my father would say. “Make your mother happy.”

“Four slices aren’t enough,” my mother would snap at my father, “he needs to eat six.”

“Who made six the magic number?” my father said.

“You always have to contradict me.”

“I’m not contradicting you. I’m just telling you not to be a dictator.”

“You’re calling me a dictator! “Why, you lying son of a ….”

I tried so hard to stay out of all the fighting. But there were two problems. One, my parents were very superstitious. Two, I had very bad allergies. I would sneeze at the worst of times.

“You see,” my mother would say to my father, “I’m right. He sneezed to the truth!”

And my father would just stare at me and yell, “Why are you always taking her side?”

“I didn’t say a thing,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, “you didn’t have to say a thing. We all heard that sneeze.”

Like most superstitions, no one is really sure where the sneezing thing came from. One Biblical theory: Jacob sneezed and died instantly. The “little explosion in the head” ensured approaching eternity. Somehow, that is followed by the belief that when a person sneezes during a conversation, whatever has just been said will occur.In my house, it didn’t stop there. A sneeze was often followed by the tugging of one’s ears – specifically, when you sneezed while talking about a dead person. The pulling of ears, supposedly, was a symbol of long, lucky years. Or long, ugly ears.

“Now, pull your ears,” my mother would command.

“But nobody died.”

“Don’t be a smartass. Pull your ears. It couldn’t hurt.”

It was sort of like knocking on wood, a superstition that bridged all cultures. Some cultures regarded trees as gods. Believers were convinced that touching wood could produce magical results.

In my house, this would lead to constant arguments about design and carpentry.

“You didn’t knock on wood,” my sister would say.

“Yes, I did, I knocked on the kitchen table.”

“The kitchen table is Formica,”

“Isn’t Formica a kind of wood?”

“No, it’s plastic. You need to knock on the dining room table. Now, that’s wood.”

Then there was spitting. Three times, to be exact. Way back when, three was a mystical number. Men would often spit literally. Women were taught the demure method of saying, “pooh, pooh, pooh.” Spitting warded off the evil eye. You would do it when a new child was born. This was before Purell.

And it wasn’t just my family that was crazy. Author Samuel Johnson never entered a house with his left foot first because he thought it “brought down evil on the inmates.” Winston Churchill was notorious for petting black cats in the belief it would bring good fortune.

Superstitions are crazy. But who wants to mess with them? Don’t put shoes on your bed while your parents are alive. A pregnant woman should never go to a cemetery. Don’t whistle in the house. Don’t whistle passing a graveyard. If you spilled salt, you had to throw some over your shoulder. If you dropped silverware on the floor, it meant company was coming. If your palm itched, you were about to come into money. If your nose itched, you were going to get into a fight. And my favorite: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

Of course, I grew up and never did any of this. Well…did I mention that my mother has been dead for 22 years and her back is still intact? It couldn’t hurt.

January 2012
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