The Child Who Tricked God and Other Spells Against Scary Things

When I was three years old, I learned a terrifying fact. People who had always been there and loved you could just go away. Like when my sister and brother finished school and left home. For me, it was a terrible loss and a threat. Could other people go away?
What about Mama? Could Mama go away? I devised a mantra to comfort myself. Every time Mama left to go to the store or work, I’d jump on a trunk that stood beneath the window, watch her drive away, and chant, “My Mama go. My Mama come back. My Mama go. My Mama come back.” I gradually convinced myself my Mama would never go away.

But then I learned there was something worse. She could die! What if she died?

This was a whole new fear, more terrible than all the other fears a three-year-old could have. I knew there were all kinds of scary things that could happen to me.

• I knew bad things would happen if I stepped on a crack.

• I knew I’d get warts if I touched a frog.

• I knew I’d go blind if a daddy long legs spit in my eye.

But I had ways to defend myself from them – crossing my fingers, closing my eyes, making wishes…or by running away screaming.

But all of the threats of my childhood didn’t come close to this new one. This one was serious. Too serious for crossed fingers, wishes, or running away.

I was sure God could help me if I prayed to Him. But I didn’t pray to God to not let Mama die. I was afraid if I asked Him to not let Mama die, it might give Him the idea, so I tricked Him.
“Dear God, please let Mama wake up feeling good in the morning,”

I prayed every night before I could go to sleep. I don’t remember when I stopped, maybe in high school.
But, wait! I could die too! I needed to pray to God about that as well. But I didn’t need to make up a trick prayer for that. There was already a prayer. It didn’t quite serve to keep me alive, but it would have to do. All I had to do was pray as faithfully as I prayed for Mama.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I kept praying and Mama and I both lived on. I still made wishes for other things. They sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. But prayers weren’t for silly things. They were just for protection from the unthinkable.
Now I know I wasn’t the first person to depend on chants or prayer to ward off evil (but maybe the youngest). For centuries people have done made little targeted prayers.

 “It could rain and spoil the wedding, God forbid.”
“Johnny could get hurt riding his bike, God forbid.”
“If you go out in this weather, you’ll get pneumonia, God forbid.”

Different groups have developed their own evil-avoiding rituals. Spitting seems to have been an important part of many of them.

My husband told me about the rituals that his Jewish grandmother used – mainly to avoid a keinahora, which was a curse disguised as a compliment, an evil eye. For example, if a neighbor looked at a newborn baby in his grandmother’s arms and said, “What a beautiful baby!” it was terrible. She had given the child a keinahora.
But Grandma Reuben would spring into action even before the words had completely left the woman’s lips.

“Tu, tu, tu,” she’d say, then spit.


Grandma Reuben was as steadfast in performing this rite as I was at my prayers. Whenever the family was in danger of a keinahora, she saved them. When Ronnie told her he got a perfect report card, “Tu, tu, tu,” and spit. When Sophie announced Joe had proposed and she was so happy. “Tu, tu, tu,” she said, and spit.

People tell me these rituals don’t work and that God doesn’t answer prayers. All I know is, for all the years I said my prayer and beyond, Mama woke up feeling pretty good in the morning.

September 4, 2018