y mother was superstitious, a trait she said she’d acquired from her Polish father, whom she vaguely described as a mystic. I never knew if he wore a wizard’s cone at dinner or simply poisoned black cats and insulted ladders.
My mother loathed ladders, all the more so because I enjoyed walking under them in her presence. She’d insist I was accumulating curses. Things deteriorated at the dinner table where I’d fumble the slippery saltshaker. Whenever it tumbled she’d grab it from me and toss salt over my left shoulder. This was her motherly way of limiting my already heavy burden of curses, though I knocked over the salt too many times for her to keep up.
Once, walking in Rome’s center, a plump black cat emerged from a very narrow street, glared at my mother, then and me, and dashed in front of us. Calming my mother took most of the afternoon (not helped by my spilling the salt over lunch).
She gave me a variety of objects intended to ward off the evil eye, including a twisty red horn I was instructed keep with me at all times. She also taught me to “horn away” evil (fare le corna), index and little finger pointed downward. This remarkable gesture could also ward off the evil eye and exasperate bad luck (and specify cuckolding, which at the time I associated with carpentry).
My mother hated the number “17,” Italy’s 13, refusing to make important decisions on the 17th day of any month. She also hated seeing hearses on the street and once kicked me out of the apartment for leaving a hat (a banal baseball cap) on her pillow, a sure sign that death (or a baseball game) was imminent. If I spilled wine — which I didn’t do much since I didn’t drink until age 30 — I was told to dab some behind my ear, or someone else’s. I tried this once with my American girlfriend but she slapped me.
My favorite story, however, concerned la zingara, the gypsy fortuneteller. A middle-aged woman with a hag’s affect, we’d occasionally see her perched on a Trastevere over-reach, mostly servicing tourists and the curious. La zingara was evil incarnate, said my mother, making me mischievously determined to have my palm read in my mother’s presence, something I actually managed one Sunday in the early 1980s. Appalled, my mother kept her distance. The fortuneteller told me I had a long lifeline, that I kept secrets, and that my mother would soon play a decisive role in my life. I presumed this represented some sort of pre-arranged conspiracy between sixty-something gypsy and sixty-something mother to vex the youthful son.
Which is when strange events took over: the gypsy insisted I fetch my mother, who approached her reluctantly. The gypsy told her she had a “nice” son who would live a long life, to which my mother said nothing, but the gypsy, persisting, said, “Signora, let me see your hand.”
I dared my mother, and she suddenly and strangely relented, slackly handing over her palm as if it no longer belonged to her body. “I know already what is in there,” she told the gypsy cryptically, but the gypsy probed nonetheless. Until she gasped, spoke what sounded like the word nove, or nine, stood bolt upright, and waddled away. Not a word was exchanged. She fled without being paid.
I laughed. My mother sighed.
“These are bad people,” my mother told me. “They know what they should not know and they say it anyway.” She spoke as if damning a prostitute.
What had the gypsy seen? I asked her. Why the silly drama? My mother changed the subject and incident was forgotten.
Nine months later, while in the United States, I received a call that my mother had been hospitalized for low blood pressure, a peculiar diagnosis. I flew to Rome where doctors told me she was terminally ill with bone marrow cancer. This news was left for me to convey.
I took her back to the U.S. where she died nine months later. Nine again. The day before her death, she accusingly whispered la zingara. Since then, my handling of saltshakers has improved, I keep my palms to myself, and no one gets close enough to leave anything on my bed.