It all started with the gardenia in my front garden suddenly dying, leaving only its woody skeleton in the tub. What should I put in its place? A pink hydrangea would look good next to the fuchsia, suggested my plant-savvy neighbour. A hydrangea? Funny – I like it, but never wanted it for my own garden. Why ever not?
As usual, the answer came when I no longer pondered the question. All of a sudden I remembered a family superstition from way back: keep hydrangeas out of the house where there is a young daughter, otherwise she’ll never marry. But then my mother was sent a lovely potted hydrangea for her birthday and she became desperately worried about my marital future. Considering that I was only six years old, her anxiety was somewhat premature.
There must be some strange filing system in the brain, because once I recover a memory from a particular category or period, related ones appear at once. So this time the “family superstitions” file opened up in my head, and all of a sudden I remembered the following rules and beliefs from long, long ago:
Don’t put new shoes, even in a box, on the table – that would bring very bad luck. (Likely origin: the feet of a hanged man dangling above the table; unlikely in a respectable family home.)
Don’t put your handbag on the floor: you’ll lose your money. (Eh? Don’t know.)
When you wish someone a happy birthday, pull his or her earlobes. (Likely origin: China, where long earlobes signify a long life. We were not Chinese, but never mind.)
When away from home you sleep in an unfamiliar bedroom, look at the four corners of the ceiling before switching off the light. Whatever you dream that night will come true. (No doubt, only I’ve never once remembered a dream under those circumstances.)
When going out you are about to shut the front door and suddenly remember a forgotten item that needs fetching, make sure you step over the threshold with your right foot, to avoid bad luck. (Apparently of Roman origin. We were not Romans either, but never mind.)
And then the most alarming one, strongly observed by my mother: when you open a sardine tin, be sure you don’t cut yourself on the sharp edge of the lid, because to do so would be TERRIBLY dangerous. She didn’t mention instant death, but it seemed implied. Now my mother happened to be a rational, practical and very bright woman, and it took me a long time to work out why sardine tins probably scared her sufficiently to let all logic disappear. She only liked water in a glass or in the bath; anything bigger, especially the sea, filled her with dread. Now sardines came from the sea, presumably they resented having been caught and tinned, hence their only means to wreak revenge on horrible humans was to wound them with their sharp-edged tins (what would we do without magical thinking?)
Mother and I never discussed this, so the above reasoning remains pure theory. What also remains is that to this day I take extra care when opening a sardine tin.
Little wonder I became a psychotherapist.