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home : opinion : columnist July 25, 2021

7/3/2021 11:18:00 PM
Itchy Palms, Bottle Trees and Haint Blue

Tammy Wilson
Guest Columnist


I grew up with a superstitious mom muttering sayings about what caused luck to go one way or the other.

Dropped my dish rag, somebody’s coming.

Nose itches, somebody’s coming.
           
Ears burn, somebody is talking about you.

Itchy palms meant money was on the way. Bubbles in a coffee cup meant the same thing.

A cricket in the house meant good luck. Apparently fake crickets work. My cousin gave me a brass cricket to place on the hearth.
           
Spilled salt meant bad luck. So did opening an umbrella in the house. And heaven forbid, don’t break a mirror. That meant seven years of bad luck.

It was bad luck to look back at the house when you leave.

Mom insisted that if she was preparing to leave the house and had to go back inside to fetch something, she would sit down before leaving and to use the same door she came in.   
           
A ring around the moon meant bad weather was coming.

The worst omen of all was a bird in the house. That was a sure sign of death. Caged birds didn’t count—her mother kept canaries years ago. Rather, wild birds were the ones to watch out for, even if they were only trying to get inside. So, if a sparrow hit the window, watch out.

Birds also called up rain. Rain crows, they were called. I’m not sure what this bird looked like, but my mother could tell its song.

Cows lying down in a pasture meant rain.
           
No leftovers after a meal was a sign of dry weather. Weather predictions were important in farm country.
           
After moving to North Carolina many years ago, I added more lore to the list.
           
The often-quoted good luck charms for New Year’s Day--ham hocks, collard greens, cornbread and black-eyed peas.

Hearing thunder in winter means snow within seven days. Fogs in August predict measurable snows during the coming winter. Folks keep track of the fogs with beans or buttons in a jar.
           
Bottles in a tree capture bad spirits before they get in the house. It’s a custom of the Gullah people from Coastal Carolinas and Georgia. I’m one of those Janey-come-latelys who has a bottle tree at the edge of the yard. As the legend goes, the blue bottles capture bad spirits and keep them from haunting the property. I’ll take all the help I can get.

Which brings me to Haint Blue. “Haint,” a Southern pronunciation of “haunt,” also originated with African-Americans of the Low Country. Explore Beaufort or Charleston or Savannah, you’ll notice older homes with blue shutters, doors, trim and porch ceilings painted various shades of robin’s egg blue.  Enslaved peoples brought with them belief in evil, angry spirits who could not (or would not) leave the physical world. Painting the porch ceiling or shutters of a house a pale blue color would keep the spirits away. Once the evil ones saw blue above and around them, they’d be tricked into thinking they had encountered moving water, which, of course, evil spirits cannot cross.

Haint Blue has been traced to the indigo trade that employed many enslaved people in colonial times. Indigo was, in fact, a cash crop grown on land deemed unsuitable for tobacco and rice production. South Carolina produced the dye almost exclusively for the British market. Things were humming until the Revolutionary War. No longer part of the British Empire, the market dried up.  

With such colorful history, I remembered the virtues of Haint Blue when we built our home in 2008.  Our builder had never heard of Haint Blue before and was intrigued by my claim that painting a porch ceiling could be the difference between a happy house and one plagued by bad juju. Why chance it? Our chosen shade of Haint Blue was Sherwin Williams’ “Ocean Grove.” Bright, bold and noticeable, it would deflect any and all haints.  For good measure, Ocean Grove was applied to a deacon’s bench near the garage door and a rocking chair on the porch. Since then, I’ve added Haint Blue accents throughout the house:  a painted basket, framed art, cushions, table cloths, flower pots and more.

These days Haint Blue porch ceilings have been popularized by designers and homeowners who wish to capture a traditional Southern look. Haint Blue samples are all over Pinterest and the Gullah tradition has been featured on “Today,” and in US News, Southern Living and elsewhere. Some retailers such as Home Depot have offered Haint Blue paint palates.
             
I think Mom would approve.
 
Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Contact her at tamra@tamrawilson.com
 
 


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