If a pair, walking together, is forced to pass on opposite sides of some obstacle, they should say “bread and butter” or risk a permanent separation.
This is A Modern Guide to Superstition, a column by Dorothy Bendel on folk belief and ritual in chaotic times.
We are in our second lockdown in the UK.
When we arrive at the designated entrance for my son’s “bubble,” I see the other parents waving and smiling at each other from opposite sides of the road as their children run ahead of them into the school. I doubt they whisper silly phrases like “bread and butter” to scratch an itch, even though infection rates have climbed. I know that superstitions are not real, that they have no bearing on the world and events as they unfold. I don’t actually believe in them—unlike my older Italian relatives, who routinely warned me to look out for “the evil eye.”
“What is the evil eye?” I once asked a cousin.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” she said, patting my knee.
Early in the pandemic, I learned of an incident at my father’s house in Florida. I’m told he brandished a knife in the front yard and screamed incoherently. I could imagine his rigid stance; his ruddy, inflamed face; the veins percolating in his forearms—a familiar portrait of rage. Apparently, his liver disease had advanced and was affecting his behavior. He refused treatment. I didn’t know how to respond. That’s sad news, I considered replying, frustrated by its inadequateness, as though I were referring to someone I hardly knew.
Not one word has passed between my father and me in more than a decade. I could mark that general point in time, our last communication, and say that’s when the separation occurred, but there has to be something to separate to begin with. Maybe we were joined when I was born, when he first held me in his arms, for a moment, before handing me over to someone else. Like handing off a stone that would become the foundation of the rocky wall between us, a wall that would grow taller and wider with each threat and act of violence until there was nothing to do but turn in opposite directions and let the wall stand.
My paternal grandmother, whose parents immigrated to New York from Poland, was the most superstitious person I’ve ever encountered. She knocked wood, threw salt over her shoulder, and made the sign of the cross at the sound of cracking thunder or a sudden gust of wind. No one dared set a handbag on the floor in her house, the house where I grew up, as doing so meant their money would surely run out. The superstitions she adhered to followed her from a murky Old World history I couldn’t quite grasp, customs of another time I didn’t dare question.
“Bread and butter” was one of my grandmother’s most sacred superstitions, one that she must have made my father observe as well. “Say it. Say it,” she would insist, stopping and refusing to move on until I complied. The ritualistic repetition burrowed itself into my brain, like an egg that would only hatch later when an invisible threat emerged. For my grandmother, to go along with the superstition was to thwart a horrible occurrence—a quarrel, or a death, or another tragedy plucked from a buffet of terrible possibilities. It became part of me, a reflex compelled by what-ifs.
“Our imaginations,” a writer friend once said to me, “are a blessing and a curse.”
A superstition can manifest as something we hardly give any thought to, like knocking wood or pocketing a heads-up penny spotted on the ground for good luck. I once read a study stating that people use superstitions as a type of outward support because they lack a sense of personal control in their lives—which might help explain why a Gallup poll found that younger people tend to be more superstitious. I’ve read about the differences between superstitions and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the latter marked by unshakeable irrational thinking, the inability to stop, or anxiety-induced exhaustion—symptoms I don’t wholly identify with myself. The phrase excessive worry often pops up in my research, in studies that were completed well before a pandemic swept through country after country, enveloping the world. What is the barometer for excessive worry now?
Once the vaccinations begin, I dare to shift my thinking and focus on what-ifs tethered to a less-gloomy future, where I can visit with friends and buy cheap train tickets to see bluer skies. But just a few weeks after vulnerable groups start getting their first jabs, reports of a new, more contagious strain of the virus surface, and we are ordered back into a stricter lockdown. My daughter is home from university, and my son will attend school online when the winter break ends. Our fates are fused, at least for the time being.
When I was little, on the rare occasions when I found myself walking with my father and an obstacle came between us, I sometimes whispered “bread and butter.” Softly, so that he wouldn’t notice. Not because I felt ridiculous, or to avoid worrying him, but because I didn’t want to make him angry. I never knew what would set him off. Maybe I said it out of habit. Maybe I thought it would change my luck, that one day I wouldn’t be scared of him.
What if the evil eye can’t be seen?
Soon after I learned of the disturbance at my father’s house, I received a message telling me that he had died. I informed my son, who never met my father, and my daughter, who was too little when they briefly met to have any memory of him. I was numb at first, then disappointed with myself for not feeling more. An emptiness widened in my gut, a canyon of sorrow that exists where I wish a loving relationship had been. I wish that I felt a sorrow more tangible, that I had warm, joyous memories to fill the nothingness, instead of flimsy what-ifs to cling to.
What if my father hadn’t been angry when he held that knife in the front yard, but instead felt that same emptiness growing within him? What if he was just scared, like I was as a child?
For my grandmother, to go along with a superstition was to thwart a horrible occurrence. It became part of me, a reflex compelled by what-ifs.
In Richard Webster’s The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, the entry for “bread and butter” reads: “Saying the words ‘bread and butter’ also removes any difficulties caused by certain actions that might bring bad luck, such as accidentally walking under a ladder.” I try to square the idea of this undoing with the primary idea of the superstition. I try to mark the point at which it becomes too late to undo what’s been done, but I’m terrified of finding it.
Dense fog moves into the city for a full week. As I walk toward the city center to collect a prescription, I recall that some people thought bubonic plague was caused by fumes produced by corpses or from bogs or cracks in the earth. I can only see a few feet in front of me, so I must trust I will meet the other side of the street if I keep pushing forward. I half expect to see a figure emerge in a black waxed coat and beaked mask filled with herbs, glass eyes searching. I imagine those living through the black death clung to superstitions out of fear, but also out of hope.
One night, I dream that I am walking with my son in reverse. Our steps are choppy and sped up like those of characters in old black-and-white films. In the fog, we walk in reverse from school toward home, our backs turned to the light poles and pillars that we instinctively know to avoid even though they appear behind us, out of our sight. I don’t say “bread and butter.” I don’t say anything, only guide my youngest child on the path to where we once began. The closer we get to our destination, the higher the fog lifts, revealing fresh sky, until the last wisps of gray are sucked upward just as we arrive home, the steps rising behind our backs toward an open door.