Thirteen is a four-letter word

Published 2:40 pm Friday, February 12, 2010

The word triskaidekaphobia was not in my vocabulary.

It was not in Mama’s either.

But it defined Mama’s fear.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

She was just as cautious about the number 13 as she was fearful of the omen of a black cat crossing her path.

She would turn the car around and go a mile out of the way if a black cat crossed in the road in front of us.

“Mama, don’t turn around. Just cuss the cat,” I’d say.

She wouldn’t listen. She wasn’t taking any chances.

(By the way. Curse is a noun. Cuss is a verb. I need not stand corrected on that.)

The number 13 didn’t cause me any night’s sleep but I humored Mama.

But she wasn’t superstitious, she said. “It’s just the way I was brought up.”

My own upbringing began to surface when I went to college. With all the higher learning that was being bestowed upon me, I couldn’t understand why I was getting this uneasy feeling about the number 13. It started popping up everywhere.

My text books were $13.62. My change was 13 cents. The time was 13 after. The scripture in Sunday morning church was Mark Chapter 13 verses 13-20. The closing song was page 213. I started to get paranoid. Then I started to get worried. A black cat crossed in front of me, and I didn’t even think about cussing. I just turned around.

This went on for weeks, 13 appeared at every possible juncture.

I was teaching school in DeFuniak Springs and, driving home that Friday, January 12, every time I looked at the odometer, 13 stared me in the face. It was 13 after 5 when I arrived home and it was flooding rain.

My grandmother, Mommie, lived just across the road and normally she would have come over after supper but the rain kept her at home.

I went out that night to the picture show with friends. My last thought before I went to bed was that I would go see Mommie the first thing the next morning.

In still, eerie quietness of the wee hours of the morning, my granddaddy’s panicked voice woke me. He was calling to Mama and Daddy from outside their bedroom window.

“Mother’s had a heart attack! She’s on the floor and I can’t get her up!”

I heard Daddy’s feet hit the floor and Mama cry out.

I grabbed my coat and pulled it on and ran barefooted out the door behind Daddy.

When I got to the bedroom, Pop and Daddy were kneeling down by Mommie.

“She’s gone,” Pop sobbed. “Mother’s gone.”

Together, we lifted her onto the bed.

My grandmother was dead.

Daddy and Pop knelt beside the bed, holding Mommie and crying.

I just stood there. Too hurt to even cry.

It was February 13, 1965.

I had never known death before. Not personally. Not like that.

It was a difficult time for all of us.

My cousin Jimmy and I sat on the steps to the upstairs where, as children, we slid down the banister, climbed the outside rail and played rock school.

Until that day, it had been a fun place. That day, it was the saddest place in the world.

Jimmy said things would never be the same again. We both cried.

He was right.

We had lost the matriarch of our family and things were never quite the same.

Back then, when someone died, the body was brought home.

Mommie was laid up in the dining room and flowers filled the room and flowed into the living room. As hard as it was, there was something comforting about her being there – at home.

Some friends sat up with Mommie that night.

I remember looking out our kitchen window and thinking that would be the last night that Mommie would be at home. I stood there and cried.

She was buried on February 14, Daddy’s birthday.

Standing there at the graveside on that cold winter day, I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

And I cussed the number 13.