Author Archives: kkussman

Not Eating the Last Bit: An American Superstition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Dog Trainer
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/24/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: The informant is my mother, who is a third generation Irish immigrant from Bridgeport, CT. She learned the superstition from her mother and has vehemently abided by it ever since. 

Context: The following piece was collected in a casual, in-person interview at the informant’s home in San Diego, CA. 

Piece: 

Informant: “I can’t eat or drink the last bit or piece of anything.”

Collector: “Why?”

Informant: “Because then I will become an old maid.”

Collector: “I don’t know why that’s just the way it is you know that’s what my mother taught me.”

Analysis: I grew up hearing my mother refuse the last drop of wine or last piece of food at nearly every meal. I believe that it is entrenched in American gender roles and concepts of femininity from the mid 20th century. The words “old maid” imply that the practice is gendered, although it is worth noting I have witnessed my uncle practice this superstition. I interpret the piece as perpetuating the idea that women should be selfless and thus offer the last of their food to others and not consume it themselves. Throughout my life, I questioned my mother’s practice and particularly what was implied by the words “old maid.” Continuously, my mother interpreted becoming an “old maid” as dying old and alone. This is particularly dire to her as she grew up in 1960s America, a time in which a woman’s self-worth was still largely tied to her relationship status and the wealth of her husband. Although this concept has been largely contested in American culture today, my mother and her mother who value family and marriage considered being old and alone a fate worse than death, the ultimate symbol of being unwanted and unloved. By controlling the tangible, they attempt to control and quell these fears.

Irish American Wedding Tradition – The Claddagh Ring

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Dog trainer
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/24/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: The informant is my mother, who is a third generation Irish immigrant from Bridgeport, CT. She learned the tradition from her parents and observed it multiple times at her four brother’s weddings. 

Context: The piece was collected in a casual, in person interview, inside the informant’s home. 

Piece:

The following is a summary of the conversation, rather than a transcription for the sake of brevity and clarity. 

The informant discussed a modification to traditional American wedding ceremonies and the exchange of wedding rings that is practice among some Irish-American groups. Whereas the traditional American ceremonies involve the couple exchanging wedding rings after they profess their vows, in my the informant’s family and community, the bride and groom exchange both wedding rings and Claddagh rings following the exchange of vows. The Claddagh ring is an Irish ring that features two hands holding a heart between them with a crown atop the heart. The wedding ring goes on the left ring finger and the Claddagh ring goes one the right ring finger with the heart pointing toward the individual wearing the ring. The informant relayed that there are multiple interpretations of the symbolism of the Claddagh ring, but that she was taught that, “it’s the hand of Mary and the hand of Joseph holding the heart of Jesus, but a lot people believe it’s Love, Faith, and Hope.” 

Analysis: The practice seems to be a way of integrating Irish heritage into the American wedding ceremony through jewelry. The Claddagh ring has been an important symbol in my family as a celebration of both our Irish heritage and Catholic faith, although I do not believe that the ring is not necessarily widely interpreted as a Catholic symbol. I was surprised to hear that the ring was worn on the right hand of the individuals because I was taught while in Ireland that one wears it on the left hand when married. I was also taught that if one wears the ring with the heart facing outwards on the right ring finger, it signifies that the person is single, whereas pointed in on the right ring finger indicates that the person is currently in a relationship. Similarly, if worn on the left ring finger with the heart pointing outward, the ring indicates that the individual is engaged, whereas pointed in on the left ring finger signifies that one is married. I have worn a Claddagh ring for just over two years that is inscribed with the words, “Faith, Love, and Friendship,” indicating yet another potential interpretation of the symbolism around the ring. It is important to note each interpretation I have heard of, interprets the two hands and heart as a trinity of either virtue or faith.

Spring Cleaning and Shopping: A Nowruz Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Farsi

Background: The informant is a sophomore film student at USC. He learned the tradition from practicing it with his mother’s side of the family during his childhood in San Ramon, CA. His mother was born in the US to Iranian parents and moved back to Iran for a brief period of time before moving back to the US. It is worth noting that the informant prefers the term Persian rather than Iranian when discussing his cultural background.  

Context: The following is transcribed from an over-the-phone interview with the informant. The informant and I are well acquainted so the discussion was casual.

Piece:

Informant: “Nowruz begins on the spring equinox. I think usually it’s the first day of the month, there’s an Iranian month, Farvardin. But like it’s not only the beginning of spring it’s also the first day of this new month sort of how like January 1st is our new year. And so some of the ways that it’s celebrated..the big thing that I remember about it. I know there’s spring cleaning and there’s shopping. That’s actually, that’s literally a part of the culture. You clean the whole house and you go shopping.”

Collector: Do you shop for clothes or a specific item?

Informant: “It’s like everything. It’s sort of like… It’s like ‘out with the old, in with the new,’ you know. Which is kind of funny because it’s like super commercial but it’s also at the core of the holiday.”

Analysis: To me, deep cleaning and then shopping seems like an intuitive way to start anew, and yet it has never been a facet of my New Year’s tradition. Cleaning the entire house and then replacing old objects with new ones symbolizes rebirth, a new start, a new year. The holiday takes place in spring, a season associated with regeneration from winter and new life. By incorporating this tradition into the holiday, the participants regenerate from the past year and materially begin anew. I thought it was interesting that he noted the commercial aspect of the holiday as “funny,” indicating that he views holidays existing in a realm somewhat separate from consumerism despite most American holidays revolving around commercial products.

Corning of The Beef and St. Patrick’s Day – Irish American Tradition

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 61
Occupation: Dog trainer
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/24/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The following piece was collected during a casual interview in the informant’s home. 

Background: The informant is my mother, who is a third generation Irish immigrant. She learned the tradition from her parents, who partook in it with numerous other Irish-American families who also lived in Bridgeport, CT. 

Piece: 

Collector: So who corns the beef?

Informant:Whoever’s house it was got the meat and they put it in the pot and then somebody else poured in the water and then somebody else put in, like a couple of people would put in the different spices. So it was a group activity if you will, they kind of all … um joined in. Obviously there weren’t jobs for every adult but everybody was there.

Collector: Where do you put it after you season it?

Informant: Okay, you take the meat and you have this huge pot looking thing in a wooden box almost with these long handles so that the men could carry it because it was very heavy. And you would put it either in your basement, um or somewhere cool and dark because it was in Connecticut so at that time of the year it would be cool enough. So one year when we had it at our house we put it in the garage and covered it um because we didn’t have windows on our garage doors. 

Collector: What day would you put it in there?

Informant: Always on um Ash Wednesday. And then on Saint Patrick’s Day whoever had the meat at their house, they held the party. And they always like set these incredible tables up with all sorts of decorations and party favors.

Collector: Like what, for example?

Informant: Party favors could be the candy coins. They would make pots of gold to put on the table and use the candy coins. Sometimes they made little leprechauns out of um pipe cleaners and sticks and stuff. 

Analysis: I really enjoyed hearing this piece from my mother, as she reminisced about her childhood and the strong tradition that was upheld by her family and numerous Irish-American families in her neighborhood. Irish immigrants, like many other immigrant groups, were subject to negative stereotypes upon arrival to the States. In ritualizing the preparation and consumption of corned beef, a distinctly Irish-American dish, the participants forge pride in their community. The fact that the process begins on Ash Wednesday, a holy day observed in multiple Christian traditions, highlights the shared religious identity of this group as well. All of the families who participated in the tradition were Catholic, a religious identity that is often understood in Ireland as a nationalist political identity as well. The “party favors” on the table suggest touristic representations of Ireland, an idealized and even romanticized conception of the Motherland. Ultimately, the tradition represents the generation of a hybrid, even liminal culture that is neither wholly Irish nor wholly American.

Bloody Mary

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 22
Occupation: Unemployed
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/24/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant: “So you go into the bathroom, turn off all the lights, look into the mirror and say, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” three times and by the third time, you turn on the light and there will be like a scratch on your face…and you’re haunted.”

Collector: “Cool. Is it only in the bathroom?”

Informant: “It needs, uh…. I’m pretty sure. I mean all I ever heard was the bathroom one, like going into the bathroom and it needs to be pitch black.” 

Background: The informant is my twenty-two year old sister. She learned this piece from friends while attending Catholic elementary school in San Diego, CA. She is an avid metal and alternative music fan with a love of body modifications including tattoos and piercings as well as horror films. 

Context: The piece was collected during a casual at-home interview. I asked the informant to share this piece because I have multiple childhood memories of her performing the ritual.

Analysis: This game/ritual is fairly common among young women and was very popular at our Catholic elementary school among both genders. While many folklore scholars have posited that this game is entrenched with female puberty and menstruation, I believe this piece was also integrated with our conceptions of the “Virgin Mary” as a human and yet divinely endowed, liminal character. Other variations and meta folklore suggest multiple different interpretations as to who “Bloody Mary” refers to. To both me and my sister in Catholic school, the only Mary we could conceive of was the Virgin Mary and the story became a sinister way to expose the contrast between the benevolence and kindness expressed within Catholicism with the strict, harsh realities of the institution we were a part of. My sister later added that the game never worked for her because she never completed it in total darkness, suggesting that although the ritual may not manifest in a supernatural encounter for everyone that participates, people still believe. 

An American Ghost Story

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 22
Occupation: Unemployed
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/24/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

“There was a man who lived in a house in the middle of the woods. There weren’t any neighbors. I don’t remember where it was. It was like the middle of America. So he was getting construction done, they wanted to build like another house for their wife and the construction workers were having problems because there was always this girl like who kept showing up. And they would be like “Hey you know you need to leave. You need to get out of here. You need to leave.” 

And one day they like went up to him and they were like, “Hey sir, you need to tell your daughter to like stay in the house.” Like and he’s like, “Oh that’s not our daughter she visits from time to time.” And they were like, “Oh, what the frick?” Because there’s no houses around there or anything you know. 

Anyways, so the guy’s grandson goes to stay at their house, um after like everything is done. And he’s like sleeping in the living room kitchen area, all the lights are off. And at like five in the morning he hears like the light turn on and someone’s in the kitchen and he’s like, “Oh that’s weird, Imma go check it out.” Um cuz it’s like the same kind of room. And like he goes in the kitchen and the light turns off and he sees somebody walking in a white dress. And so he thinks it’s his grandmother… or grandfather, he can’t really see them and so he goes back to bed. And then wakes up in the morning and is like, “Grandfather why were up so late like what… like what were you doing?” and he was like, “Oh that wasn’t me like, that was like”… I don’t know what he named her like Tiffany or something and he’s like, “Who’s Tiffany?” and he’s like, “Oh she’s a ghost who visits from time to time.” 

Like what the?”

Context: The piece was collected during a casual at-home interview. I knew the informant loves horror films and ghost stories so I asked her to tell me her favorite ghost story. 

Background: The informant is my twenty-two year old sister. She learned this piece from someone she used to date. She and the person who originally told her the story live in San Diego, California. She is an avid metal and alternative music fan with a love of body modifications including tattoos and piercings as well as horror films. She claims the story functions for her as evidence for the existence of ghosts.

Analysis: I find this ghost story to be especially ominous because so many components (for example, the girl’s back story, how the grandfather knows her and why he isn’t afraid) are unexplained. Although the transcript may not reflect this, the story was told in a very similar manner as you might expect to hear gossip from a close friend or sister. Surprisingly, the tale is not cautionary. The little girl doesn’t really do anything grossly disruptive nor does she demand vengeance for past events, but rather simply asserts her presence. Instead of justifying the ghost’s existence or its purpose, the story merely asserts that supernatural forces exist whether you choose to view them as such. The characters’ reactions are contrasted with the grandfather’s seemingly calm demeanor, suggesting that the more common reaction is fear of the supernatural. Since the initial assumption of the construction crew and grandson were that the ghost was not supernatural but rather was a real person, the audience’s potential skepticism is addressed. All of these elements are heightened by the storyteller’s fervent belief in the veracity of the story which serves to reproduce the belief.   

Skateboarding Taboo – Mall Grabbing and Pushing Mongo

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Canadian/American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/22/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Background: The informant is a twenty year old photography student in New York City. He learned of the taboo while growing up in both Los Angeles, CA and Burlington, VT. He has skated regularly since he was 12 years old. 

Context: The informant was teaching me how to skateboard in his San Diego neighborhood and informed me of the taboos. This piece was collected in its natural performance setting. The piece itself is a summary of the conversation because the performance was not planned and was recorded after the performance and not as it was being performed in real time. 

Piece: 

I was “mall grabbing” the skateboard and the informant quickly began to make fun of me and told me not to hold the skateboard in this manner. Mall grabbing is holding the skateboard vertically by the top truck, with the grip tape of the skateboard facing the holder’s legs. This is considered a “rookie move” and would have almost certainly invited insults and jeers from other skateboarders if we were at an actual skate park. When asked why it was bad to “mall grab,” the informant said that having the grip tape face one’s pants or shorts usually leaves scuffing or pilling on them. 

After being informed about this taboo I remembered that I had once heard of skaters being made fun of for “pushing mongo” so I asked the informant to explain what this meant and why it was taboo. He told me that “pushing mongo” refers to the practice of riding a skateboard using the front, rather than the back foot, to push the ground and generate momentum. He noted that this is taboo because it is an inefficient and awkward way to ride the board and makes it difficult to transition from pushing to doing tricks. The assumption is that if an individual pushes mongo, he/she/they can’t skate stably or perform tricks smoothly.

Analysis: Skateboarding is an incredibly exclusive subculture in my experience. When you go to a skatepark, people usually gather in groups, observe each other skating, and often make fun of other skaters in the park who aren’t “good.” The taboo on “mall grabbing” and “pushing mongo” quickly becomes a way to distinguish the beginners from the experts. It creates explicit ingroups and outgroups. It shows that skater culture places a high premium on the ability to perform tricks in a particular, socially sanctioned way. When an individual pushes mongo, it is more difficult to perform tricks in the smooth and seamless manner that is preferred. Although there are many different skating styles, these taboos highlight that there is an ideal style and when skaters perform outside of this ideal, they are not accepted into the wider community.