I don’t think anyone who knows me would be surprised to find out that I am an extremely superstitious person. I compulsively knock on wood. I throw salt over my left shoulder on a daily basis because I’m never quite sure of exactly what qualifies as “spilling” it, so I just err on the side of caution anytime I am near a salt shaker. I hate the number 13 and will go to great lengths to keep it out of my life. (I am as big a fan of lagniappe as the next person, but please don’t ever try to give me a baker’s dozen. It will not end well.)
I also pick up other people’s neuroses as easily as a cold virus. Stepping on sidewalk cracks never bothered me until it bothered my college roommate, and now I studiously avoid ever doing so. Same with tails-up coins: I would always pick them up – money is money – until I had a coworker who was horrified after watching me pocket a tails-up quarter. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Do you know what you just did? That is 25 days of bad luck!” I did not say: “Oh, don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t 25 days of bad luck. It’s 10 minutes of street parking.” I said: “Oh, no! I didn’t know that! Oh, shit! Will it still count if I throw it back?!”
Somehow, though, it never occurred to me to take fortune cookies very seriously. I don’t eat them; they taste too much like waffle cones to me, and after four years of making waffle cones at Baskin-Robbins in college, I just can’t stand the smell or flavor. But I still break them open and read the message. If I like it, I tape it up over my desk. (Like the one that says: “Four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, humanity.” I think I only hit one of the four on a regular basis, but it’s good to have goals.) But I never really take them to heart.
Somehow, though, those little rectangular paper fortunes now remind me, poignantly, of both of my dead siblings.
The first meal we ate with my brother after he got out of rehab was at Great Wall on Metairie Road. When he cracked open his cookie, his fortune read, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be.”
“Ooh, give that to me!” I squealed, 7 years old and quite sure I single-handedly could make sure my brother got well and stayed well this time. “I want to make you a present with it.”
I took the fortune home and glue-sticked it to the center of a piece of cream-colored construction paper. Around the border of the paper, I drew different faces – happy, friendly, sober faces. “Please make good choices,” I wrote underneath the fortune. My mom took me to K&B and we picked out a frame for it and delivered it to him at his French Quarter apartment. He was genuinely touched and hung it on his wall.
“Thanks, sissy,” he said.
Three weeks later, he was dead. We buried him with it, with that and a pack of Camels.
The story of my sister is different. With her, it was almost the opposite, in fact. By the time she died – hell, by about three years before she died – I’d given up on her. I still loved her, of course, but I no longer held out any hope that she would get better, stop drinking, get her act together.
About a month after she died, I went to clean out her house. In her bedroom, on her dresser, was a huge goblet full of hundreds and hundreds of fortunes. She must have been saving them since she was a teenager. And I had no idea. Even when she was at her best, my sister never struck me as sentimental or hopeful or goal-oriented or intellectually curious. There is something indescribably sad about sifting through hundreds of wise/wistful/complimentary fortunes for someone who died too young. And without her there, I was left to wonder: “Did she save all of them compulsively? Did she just save the ones that spoke to her? Did she really see herself as someone with an ‘unquenchable thirst for knowledge’? Did she really ‘desire fame’ and think that she was ‘destined to find it’?”
Until I went through her things, I never once thought of my sister as a private person. I’ve heard of people sometimes mistaking others’ silence for depth, but in my family culture of oversharing, I mistook my sister’s silence for shallowness. Since she never wanted to talk to me about anything other than what she ate for dinner or the Saints or what was happening on any of the various soap operas she followed religiously, I mistakenly assumed that was the sum total of her life. It was a shock to me to see my sister get so angry in the last months of her life – anger seemed like too strong of an emotion for someone I thought of as so bland. Likewise, it was a shock for me to discover so many secrets among her personal effects – there were so many facets of her personality that were never on display to me. As I packed up her life into banker’s boxes, I realized that I wasn’t really all that sad about losing my sister. We hadn’t been close in years. But I was keenly sad about never having really known her; I was sad that there wasn’t more for me to miss.
If I had found the goblet of dusty fortunes sooner, I might have insisted that we have it cremated with her body, in a bit of parallelism with my brother. But by the time I found it, we had already scattered her ashes, and so I brought it home with me and put it on my dresser.
It would seem obvious for me to pick up her habit and start throwing my own fortunes into the goblet with hers, but somehow, that just doesn’t seem right. The goblet, just half-full, is still only hers and hers alone. I want to keep it exactly as it is.
It stays on my dresser to remind me how much I miss her – and of how much about her I was missing even when she was alive. It may not be brief enough to fit on a tiny rectangle of paper or pithy enough to be worth writing down, but being careful not to underestimate people is a lesson that I’m glad she taught me, even if it came too late.