Although my mum left the teeny weeny beautiful Caribbean island of St Vincent when she was just the tender age of eleven, this did not stop her from bringing the island’s entire folklore knowledge with her, not to mention the countless old wives’ tales, proverbs and adages for every imaginable situation possible. Coupled with all the British contributions too, I’m not sure how I came out of my childhood not being fearful of everything in the world.
As a child, I didn’t mind throwing salt over my shoulder. It was fun. I liked to aim well at the invisible devil standing behind me (the sportswoman in me gave me that drive) but having the salt confused for dandruff wasn’t great. Walking through the front door backwards after midnight was also a good laugh, if not a bit tricky, but I mastered it and was infinitely better at it than my older brother who walked into everything but the hallway. Admittedly, we weren’t out after midnight that often as children but enough to be excited on the way home about practicing our backward walking, an activity that most parents would chastise you for, but not ours. They positively encouraged it. You can’t let the devil follow you in, you see.
Then there was the not ironing before a bath or shower. This one was not steeped in any religion but seemed to be based on physical changes within the body that took place whilst you were ironing. I would love to hear a scientist’s take on this. This danger warning was actually annoying as a teenager, although what isn’t then? Ironing makes you hot, a shower cools you down, but no, that was not the order it went in. If you did, terrible things would happen to you, even possibly death. Maybe not immediately but at some stage in your life it would catch up with you. My mum still maintains a distance cousin of hers’ mental illness and skinniness are all because she ironed before she bathed. The combination of the heat from the shower and from the ironing passed through her body, dried out her brain cells and then her fat cells.
We also weren’t allowed to take the Lord’s name in vain. I often wondered why the Lord’s name was in my veins but I never asked why. There were also many more dos and don’ts based on nothing but myth and folklore but my brain has since shut the door on them and I can’t remember what they are.
So now that I am well into my adult life with backward walking and salt throwing a thing of the past and all other cautionary tales no longer heard of, (I’m not sure if my mum has stopped telling them or whether I have stopped listening) you can imagine my horror when she recently came out with a new one I had never heard of before.
Chatting to my mum on Skype the other day (she has no cautionary tale for video chats, so we’re okay), she noticed that the little man’s hair is getting really curly and really long on top. I hadn’t oiled it that day, so he did look like he was wearing a woolly hat. The conversation went like this.
Mum (strong West Indian accent with slight British lilt): Jesus wept. Look at the hair p’on that child’s head.
Me: Yes, I know mum. It’s really growing now. We’re going to get it cut soon.
Mum: Nah, nah, nah (In West Indian speak, you say the same word three times for emphasis). You know what they say? If you cut a child’s hair b’fore they turn one, that’s it.
Me: What’s it? Who says?
Mum: He’ll be dumb.
Me: What do you mean dumb?
Mum: He won’t be able to speak!
So as you can imagine, I’ve just had the most ridiculous conversation with my mum, a conversation I know to be completely irrational and not make any sense and more importantly have no truth to it, yet why do I hang up the phone with a slight tingling of doubt in my stomach? Pre-parenthood there would not have been doubts.
Coincidentally, (because I never mentioned the conversation to him) Soobs said to me a few weeks later that we needed to get the little man’s hair cut. And what happened? I turned into my mother and actually repeated the rubbish word for word, hoping that he would see a little sense in what was being said. Soobs laughed, a little too much actually but I understand why. I must have sounded crazy, if not stupid. I kind of pretended I was joking and we decided anyway to do it when he turns one, as it will be a nice way to mark his milestone with a birthday haircut.
A month later we are chatting with mum and her observation about the little man’s hair rears up again, as though she has forgotten the previous conversation about it.
Me: Well, it’s okay now because he’s going to be one in a couple of months, so it will fly by.
Mum: One? Nah nah nah. You can’t cut their hair until they start speaking. I checked with your aunty V.
Oh Lord, sorry I know I shouldn’t say the Lord’s name in vain. Not only has the story become even more ludicrous but it has now radically changed. I haven’t been backward-walking and salt throwing for over twenty-five years and I’m still all right. And my mum doesn’t know it, but when I iron, which is not that often, I do it before I have a shower. My brain cells seem intact (just) and I have a baby.
So what do you do when you are caught under the weight of a whole Caribbean island’s folklore and your British sensibilities? I do not want my mum to think I rubbish the values she has instilled in me – only some of them and I don’t want her to think that I think she talks a lot of crap, even though I do.
Old wives tales’ are a load of nonsense, silliness that we use to make bonds with our friends and families. A way of telling them you love them, because you are bringing to their attention the most ridiculous of tales in case there is any slight truth in them. This is my mum’s way of trying to protect her children and grandchild from the apparent dangers of the world that someone somewhere once said existed.
So although I will be still cutting little man’s hair when he turns one this autumn, I will bear in mind what mum has said, and remember that it’s because she is full of love for us that she says what she says and not just because she’s plain daft.