For years I saw him walk past our house with his mother. He was older than me but I never saw him by himself or go to school. Sometimes his siblings would walk along with him but his mother would always be there too.
Back then, the term used was ‘mongoloid’, a word that puzzled me. We knew nothing about the disorder, why it had that name or what the symptoms were. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that I learned about the condition and its proper name.
We lived in a village on the outskirts of a small rural town. It was a place where religion and superstition lived hand in hand; where transgressions and gossip were as significant in people’s lives as their daily bread.
It was unusual then, for a disabled child to live at home rather than in an institution but his mother was determined to keep him with her despite the criticism and pressure from family and neighbours. She got on with her life, raising several children and doing the hard work that women in villages had to do. She learned to live with the stares, the whispers and the hurtful remarks. Eventually as the years passed, mother and son became a common sight and they were left alone.
In time his brothers and sisters left home and his father died. But still, as late as his forties, he and his mother would go for their walks. They always walked at the same pace; she dressed in black, old and hunched, slightly ahead; him close by, always at the same distance, always looking just ahead. I never saw them talk to each other but whenever they passed someone he would always say the same words “what time is it?’
I used to wonder what would happen to him if his mother died first but I learned some time ago that he was the first to go.
Yesterday I was in a work meting that included lunch. After we finished eating I picked up a plate left on the working table to move it to the serving area. As I did this a piece of cutlery fell on the floor.
I was about to move when one of my colleagues anxiously asked me if it had been the knife that had fallen. I replied yes and was taken aback when she told me I couldn’t pick it up. Assuming her concern was over safety, I thought her reaction was sweet but a little over the top and puzzled as to why she thought I couldn’t pick up the knife safely.
I glanced at the knife, which looked perfectly harmless lying there on the floor. Before I could say or do anything else, she repeated I couldn’t pick it up, that someone else had to do it. I was wondering what she was going on about, when another colleague quickly got up and picked the knife up.
Seeing my confused expression, they explained that as I was the one who had dropped the knife it was bad luck for me to pick it up. I thought they were joking but they were really serious about this.
We went on to discuss other superstitions like opening umbrellas indoors or spilling salt. Almost everyone in the room believed in at least one myth. One of the guys said he didn’t but that he wouldn’t walk under ladders. When I asked him why, he said ‘it’s bad luck’!
My colleagues seemed as surprised that I didn’t believe in any superstitions (surely there are some in your country too) as I was about them believing them so strongly. They said that even though they know it is irrational, this is so ingrained in their psyche that they can’t help acting on it.
My crossed knives
This morning as I was preparing breakfast I noticed that I had two knives laying crossed over each other, which signifies bad luck in my country. No, I didn’t quickly uncross them but the thought was definitely there. This made me realize that although I do not believe or act on the superstitions I grew up with, they are nonetheless etched in my brain too.
I would love to know your views – do you feel compelled to act on the superstitions you know or do you ignore them?