My Grandma’s Superstitious Surprise by
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(96 Stories)

Prompted By Superstition

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My grandmother with me and my brothers

I knew my grandmother was superstitious, mostly about attracting the evil eye or bringing bad luck to the family. Any good news was followed by what sounded like, “pooh-pooh-pooh.” Baby carriages were adorned with bright red ribbons so anything evil would be attracted to the ribbon rather than the beautiful baby. Hats could not be placed on beds and books were never to be left open. Chicken soup cured whatever ailed you.

Her superstitions were old wives’ tales she brought to America from the old country as a girl.

Her superstitions or (bubbe meises in Yiddish) were old wives’ tales she brought to America from the old country as a girl. For example, salt could ward off demons if placed in pockets or in the corners of a house. If she sewed a button on something someone was wearing, that person needed to put thread in their mouth to ward off misfortune. If it rained on your wedding day, that’s good luck. And never boast about good health because you would surely become sick.

When I got my period, my mother was very excited, as was I until I realized how not-fun it was. In those days, girls wore belts that hooked into huge Kotex pads. I’m pretty sure my mother gave me a pamphlet about it as well as a starter kit she must have been saving for this special occasion. Then, my grandmother came over and spat in my face. If I didn’t already suspect having a period every month was not wonderful, my grandmother removed all doubt.

What was the meaning of her spitting on me? No one warned me of this custom, and I remember feeling humiliated at the time. After she left, my mother explained it was her traditional way to welcome me to womanhood. If she spat in my face, would the evil one be distracted, thus making my period shorter and less uncomfortable? Or was this a good thing? Perhaps it meant I wasn’t pregnant, which is a positive development for a thirteen-year-old.

Was becoming a woman good or bad? My grandmother laughed after she spat in my face, but I felt pretty upset, so I surmised it was probably some of both. Actually, there’s some truth to that bubbe meise.

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Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Oh dear Laurie, I had always heard about that menses tradition, but I don’t remember my mother or either of my grandmothers slapping my face or spitting at me, darn it!

    But I do remember my parents giving me a book explaining the facts of life called From Little Acorns. I don’t think we ever explained it all to our son, but I think by now he’s figured it out!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Old Jewish women certainly had strange customs, didn’t they Laurie? Dana mentioned some of the same superstitions. I guess I didn’t see my grandmother often enough, and she died when I was still fairly young, so I was not subject to most of the ones you describe. But the spitting in your face is really something. I was away at camp when I got my first period, so that couldn’t happen to me. I understand your confusion and humiliation. Good grief! What a strange custom to do to someone you love! I am so glad we have not carried on with that one. Better to explain and support the next generation of budding women!

  3. Marian says:

    Aha, Laurie, you’ve explained the red ribbon I asked about in my comment to Betsy’s story, thank you. How upsetting that when you got your period your grandmother spat in your face! I’d never heard of that specific superstition, although I’m sure most of the women on Retrospect can relate to the other circumstances surrounding that event. (Oh, what the younger women have missed by not experiencing those horrid pads and belts!) I have heard of a superstition that the girl, when she gets her first period, gets a slap on the face from her mother.

  4. Suzy says:

    Wow, never heard about spitting in a girl’s face to welcome her to womanhood. That is not a superstition about which I can say, as I do about most of them, “well, it can’t hurt.” But that one IS hurtful, as you describe. In contrast, the other ones, like red ribbons on baby carriages, or salt in the corners, seem harmless. And chicken soup really DOES cure whatever ails you. Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. Aw, Laurie, I’m sad for 13-year-old you. Isn’t it amazing that an adult could be so oblivious to or uncaring of a child’s feelings? As if things weren’t difficult enough at the tender age of 13, right?

    And what’s with the number 13? As superstition would have it, an unlucky number. Imagine that buildings today still don’t number the 13th floor! Superstition still pervades our culture. There’s actually such a thing as paraskevidekatriaphobia — fear of Friday the 13th — and I know this because I Googled it.

    Science, please! Although I have to admit I get a kick out of it when people do the “pooh pooh pooh.” Somehow there’s a kind of comfort in it.

  6. I’d heard about throwing salt to ward off evil, but not the prohibition against putting a hat on the bed. Dana mentions the hat, too. And as I child, I heard all about the evil eye and ways to ward if off Although my ancestors were from Armenia, the fears and threats of their old country were similar to your grandmother’s “old country.” I cannot imagine what it was like to always live in fear of raids, pogroms, soldiers riding through the villages and snatching young women, and seemingly endless war. One would need a set of beliefs, no matter how irrational, to keep from being overwhelmed by fear.

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