Well, it’s cold and flu’ season again. That time of year when Old Wives’ Tales get hauled out of storage and tossed into almost every conversation: got the sniffles? Well, you need to eat a kilo of raw garlic / soak your feet in a mustard bath / rub a banana skin on your head / put a cut onion next to your bed to absorb all the germs. They were somewhat flaky, those Old Wives.
My brother and I endured a lot of Old Wives’ Tales, as children. For example: we weren’t allowed to get into a swimming pool for an hour after eating – even just to sit on the step – in case we got a cramp and immediately sank to the bottom. And, in winter, we could only eat porridge once or twice a week, because ‘oats heat the blood’. Whatever that meant. My parents’ strange beliefs never made much sense to me and I remember doing a fair amount of eye-rolling as a child. I’m lucky that the wind never changed, or my face would’ve stayed that way.
Anyway, I feel differently about Old Wives’ Tales these days. Maybe it’s because I’m an old wife myself now, but I have some sympathy with these bold attempts to understand and control an often-baffling world.
Marriage was obviously very important to the Old Wives, because there’s a whole lot of advice about it. For example: are you anxious to see the face of your future spouse? Well, all you have to do is stand in front of a mirror at midnight on Halloween, holding a candle, eating an apple and brushing your hair … and you’ll see his / her face appear over your shoulder. If you can manage this juggling act without setting fire to your nightie or choking on the apple, then you’re a catch, and any apparition will be lucky to have you. You’ll make a great multitasking parent one day.
Speaking of which … want to make sure your unborn baby is a boy? Well, say the Old Wives, make sure you eat a “boyish” diet. That doesn’t mean frogs, snails and puppy dog tails. Silly reader. That’s just a nursery rhyme. This is science. No, a boy-diet means lots of red meat, eggs and, weirdly, peas. And if you want a girl, eat sweets.
Of more questionable validity are beliefs around cheese causing nightmares (apparently not), and losing 50% of your body heat through your head. It seems it’s not absolutely vital to wear a hat when it’s cold out, although nothing on earth is going to change my mother’s mind about this.
But before we write off the Old Wives as a bunch of overheated, cheese-hating, gender-obsessed control freaks, we have to give them some credit. Because sometimes modern science proves them right: chicken soup really does make you feel better; being cold most likely does make you sick, by stressing your body and lowering immunity; and it seems that carrots do help your eyesight (although they won’t give you night vision).
Besides, Old Wives Tales can be extremely useful. Did you know for example, that vegetables contain a powerful spider-repellant? It’s true. Spiders won’t come near little children who eat all their vegetables. Also, loud singing is very damaging to the vocal chords. If you want your voice to be in top form for the school production of Annie, you absolutely must not belt out hits like You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile more than five times a day in the weeks before the show. And finally, if you want to keep your loved one happy throughout the festive season, and guarantee yourself a nice Christmas present … ply her with chocolate.
It’s all completely true. An Old Wife said so.
Robyn Goss is a South African writer, recently moved to Switzerland. You can read her blogs at www.robyngoss.com