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