My twin brother and I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood; a tapestry of cultures intersecting east of Roosevelt Avenue and as far away from Main Street as one can get. It had its advantages. Everyone knew each other and – even though our families and traditions were as different as the color of our skin – we had one thing in common…we all came from somewhere else. Our dad, as well as the many others who lived on Union Street, had a really cool accent. My brother and I attended harvest festivals at the Hungarian Club where we were allowed to drink a little wine and stay up well past our bedtimes and sometimes late into the night. We cooked big meals and ate together every Sunday while listening to colorful stories from the “old country”.
There were countless dramatic chronicles of rivalry between clans, stories of forbidden love, and tales of restless souls returning from the dead that made for marvelous entertainment.
I inherited my love of storytelling from my maternal grandmother – whose passing two years ago still seems very raw – but, one of her more frightening tales was that of the witch who lived in their village and put a curse on my great-grandmother’s eggs. Mama didn’t know the exact reason for the woman’s disgruntlement, but she remembered walking in on the witch, who was standing in front of a mirror and muttering some sort of Hungarian evil eye while carefully turning each egg in both her hands. My grandmother took the eggs to her mother who carefully cracked one open to find….a bloodied yolk….and upon hearing of the evil eye, she promptly threw the rest of the eggs out the kitchen window; basket and all.
Then there’s the one that still makes me shudder; the tale of the second-cousin-or-another lying on her death bed and wanting to see my teenaged grandmother one last time. My great-grandmother, being superstitious, was not about to expose her young daughter to any bad karma and refused to send my grandmother. Her family shared a one room house and slept in beds that were lined against the wall nearest the stove. My grandmother vividly remembered that, as soon as the lights were turned down, the night the cousin died there was a sound like that of a whip slicing through the air and a cold wind that swept over the room, blew out the kerosene lamps and an unseen force pulled the covers from my grandmother’s bed.
I can almost hear her voice say…
“We lit the lamps once more and as soon as they were turned down, the wind would blow and the terrible whooshing sound would get louder and louder, until my mother put an end to it by saying The Lord’s Prayer and lighting every blessed candle we had. Remember my child. — never, ever deny a person’s dying wish!”
That one still gives me goose bumps!
Stories like this made for great fodder to a vivid imagination and I have always maintained a respect for old wives tales through the years. I’ve since passed on a few of Mama’s tales to my children, G-rated of course, reassuring them that it is a fun way to share and learn about their ancestors. And however far-fetched they may seem, there seems to be some grain of truth, however small, in most folklore.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the things I’ve learned from my grandmother. I especially think of her on New Year’s Day.
1996 was the year when things were bad, and kept getting worse.
It was the year when my husband suffered with one health issue after another, the baby was diagnosed with severe colic, I endured months of sleep deprivation, and my two-year-old contracted a viral infection that would last for the next three years.
**shivers and pulls on slippers**
Yep, it was turning out to be a long hard winter – especially with a two-year-old and a newborn in the house – as it was that winter when my husband lost his job. We were putting our groceries on the credit cards and our marriage to the test.
My Grandmother listened to me rant and rave about my husband’s bad luck. I couldn’t understand it! How could so many bad things happen to such a good person?
Finally, when it seemed to her that I had exhausted every bit of postnatal energy I had left by wallowing in self pity, she placed both hands on the table, leaned in very close and asked…
“Vat deed you feed heem ze firrrst day of ze new yearrrr?”
I stuttered my response.
“What, you mean New Year’s Day? Chicken. Why?”
She slapped both hands down on the kitchen table, hard. She shook her head in total disbelief and made the sign of the cross.
“Vell, vat deed you x-pecked? You feed ze poorh men chicken!”
I didn’t understand. I thought she was off her broad egg noodle.
“What does that have to do with it, Mama?”
My Grandmother sat back deep in her chair and crossed her arms. She patiently explained how the chicken would scrape the ground in a backward motion while looking for its food; while the pig would always root forward.
**the sound of crickets chirping**
You never feed your husband chicken on the first day of the New Year, because that would mean looking back at the past. Feed him pork and you look forward to getting ahead in the future.
“Zo, you zee my dehr, it vas bee-cuz of you. No chicken, everh, on New Year’s Dey!”
Maybe it was just a bad year, or maybe it was the chicken. Either way, motherhood has taught me to appreciate the good days, and to listen, as well as learn, from the voice(s) of the past. And every New Year’s Day since 1997, I’ve taken my grandmother’s advice — and only serve pork — just in case.
Happy New Year and may we all look forward – never back – to the future!