With apologies to the pro-Halloween contingent, there may not be an observance all year that is more steeped in sheer superstition than New Year’s Day.
Growing up down the road in Newton, there was always a list of things to do — and, more importantly, not to do — when greeting the new year, so as to not accidentally do something that would ensure a life of unhappiness, ill health and poverty ... not necessarily in that order.
I was forbidden, for instance, to sweep off the front porch.
This was not a big issue for me, since I rarely found myself compelled to go to the utility room, grab the broom and go sweep off the front porch. For some reason, even at a tender age I found other things much more appealing, such as drawing, reading, listening to records, playing with my dog Sport, watching TV and, in general, not engaging in any sort of activity remotely associated with the act and/or fine art of housekeeping.
My wife, Cheryl, I believe, will vouch for my long-term consistency in regard to this particular disposition.
“I’ll let you sweep off the front porch if you want to,” she has often mentioned during our nearly 25 years of marriage, though always in a non-New Year’s Day context.
“That’s OK. I’ll pass,” I innocently — and, it turns out, ignorantly — replied several times early on regarding that and other proposed tasks, such as clearing the dishwasher and taking out and folding the clothes in the dryer, before it dawned on me — with an appropriate chill — that women have a distinctly understated and maddeningly deceptive method of forming an imperative sentence in a way that makes it sound for all the world exactly like a simple, mild suggestion that is ripe for shrugging off.
The problem is, the punctuation doesn’t come from the statement itself. It comes from something that accompanies it, something known in husbandly terms as The Look, which usually incorporates a cocked eyebrow and, in severe cases, a tapping foot and crossed arms, all signs historically associated with dire cataclysmic events such as the Apocalypse (now tentatively scheduled for Dec. 21, Mayan Standard Time), the spewing of Mount Vesuvius all over Pompeii, and — worst of all — the second half of last month’s SEC football championship game between Georgia and LSU.
Still, despite the early sowing of the seeds that would earn hundreds of The Looks in later like, Momma would invariably remind me each and every New Year’s Day: “You make sure that you don’t go and sweep off the front porch today. It’s bad luck.”
I was also ordered, in no particular order, to not take out the trash, to not beat the dust out of the welcome mat and a couple of other things that I can’t remember, other than the fact that they fit in nicely with my general plans of not doing any of that stuff anyway.
In fact, the only area where we had some difficulty negotiating this whole New Year’s Day good luck/bad luck thing revolved around food, starting at midnight. Both my parents had this odd idea that the ideal snack to dine on while watching the Big Ball drop in Times Square was, of all things, sardines on soda crackers. I’m not sure whether that was some German tradition that came down Dad’s family tree, but I was never a fan of sardines and couldn’t think of a single good reason to go and mess up a perfectly good soda cracker by putting one on it.
“You need this for good luck,” he said. Several times.
“OK,” I said, “but I want mine fixed with peanut butter and hold the sardine.”
That’s the good thing about guys — we compromise.
Which wasn’t the case with Momma at our traditional New Year’s Day dinner, which involved a menu that included, among other things, black-eyed peas, greens and ham that, thankfully, didn’t come from anywhere near the hog’s cheek.
I was deep into a meat (preferably beef or fried pork chop) and potatoes diet and, more or less, eschewed vegetables, which is something else that has flummoxed my wife, who badly misjudged my dietary habits when we got married.
“I thought,” she has said numerous times, “I was marrying someone who would love tomatoes and okra and greens and ...” the list is pretty long and gets tedious at this point if you don’t just stick in an “etc.” and try to move on.
“I know, I know,” was my stock reply. “You going to eat those fries?”
Actually, I’ve broadened my horizons and routinely devour tomatoes, broccoli, spinach and other things that are, today at least, considered good for you, but I still won’t eat sardines. Or okra, which is the snot of the vegetable kingdom ... unless that offends you, in which case it is merely slimy.
Growing up, however, I protested each and every New Year’s Day but still had to eat the black-eyed peas for good luck and “pocket change” and the greens for “folding money.”
Grown up, or at least older, Cheryl and I started our own New Year’s Day dinner tradition — spaghetti and meatballs. The first time I mentioned this menu to Momma, she was, in a word, aghast.
“You have to have something green!” she said, “You’ll go broke.”
“I ate black-eyed peas and greens for years,” I observed, “and I’m broke anyway.”
“Well,” she said, “I didn’t tell you to work for a newspaper.”
“We’re having salad first,” I pointed out. “Lettuce is green, so that should be good for folding money. The olives should be a nice substitute for the peas, and if they aren’t, so what? I hate loose change jangling around in my pocket anyway.”
For my parents, who were part of the Greatest Generation and who knew what hard times really were, the idea of being flippant about money, even small change jangling in your pocket, was outlandish.
She gave me The Look.
And me, well, I felt a little bit like a smelly sardine swimming in a bowl of okra. At least I didn’t stoop to sweeping off the porch.
Email Jim Hendricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.