My latest book, HALLEY,
Awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazon
In the Georgia mountains of my childhood, there were some people who were superstitious. Not many actually believed in ghosts, but many believed in “signs.” If your hand inched, you were going to come into some money. If your nose itched, you were going to have company. Many believed that people could bring bad luck on another simply by wishing it on them. I think practically all the women believed that a pregnant woman who got scared or had a bad experience could “mark” her baby. When expecting me, my mother saw her pet dog run over by a car, and when I was born I had a red birthmark on the back of my head. “It was just exactly the shape of the puddle of blood around my dog’s head,” she would say. My grandmother Long believed she had marked her firstborn son by constantly craving strawberries while pregnant. She wasn’t a bit surprised when he was born with a birthmark on his chest shaped like a strawberry.
My Grandfather Long, like many other farmers of that place and time, planted and harvested by the astrological signs of the zodiac. He was sure that his success depended on obeying these signs precisely. Not only that, he believed that as mundane a chore as digging fence post holes had to be planned by the signs and the phases of the moon. According to him and others, you had to dig out a lot more dirt when you didn’t go by the signs. In addition, common illnesses could have worse consequences if they happened at an unfavorable time.
There was folklore about having your wishes granted too. Many believed that if you wanted something very badly, you could simply name that wish and then open the bible at random. If either of the pages contained the phrase “It came to pass,” then your wish would be granted. I didn’t really believe this, but I did try it a few times just to be sure. It didn’t work for me.
Some people were reputed to have mysterious healing powers. Some could “draw the fire” out of a burn injury, so there would supposedly be no more pain. My great grandfather Fields was said to be gifted with the power of curing babies of the “thrush,” by breathing in their mouths. He dipped snuff, so the smell of tobacco spit and rotten teeth might have driven away almost anything!
A college friend of mine grew up on a Georgia farm along with four sisters. Eleen’s father died a couple of months before the youngest girl was born. That child never saw her father, and according to a common superstition that fact automatically gave her almost unlimited healing powers. People would bring their loved ones from great distances to have a laying on of hands. She did not charge–that, it was believed, would have canceled out her power–but people would give free will gifts in accordance to their means–a quarter, fifty cents–occasionally even a dollar. Perhaps from jealousy, the older girls teased the youngest constantly about her “powers.” The reluctant healer began hiding in the woods when she saw visitors coming. Her mother always sent the other girls to fetch her–the family needed the money, but Mama also didn’t want to turn desperate people away.
I remembered Eleen’s story when writing HALLEY, and I gave Opal, an African American girl, this power of healing. But I decided I would also give her the goal of going to medical school and becoming a true healer. Opal’s family, who all worked so one could go to school, served as a stark contrast to Halley’s family, who valued education so little.
It’s easy to laugh at superstitious beliefs from earlier times, but we have our own illogical beliefs. If you doubt, just look at those who play the stock market. They shell out big money on “hunches” or unchecked tips. And every time the stock market shows a long rising trend, they believe against all logic that it will last forever.
I guess each generation has to give young people something to disbelieve and laugh at!