Ancestry and the Superstitions of Spring
Remembering my steel town roots in the month of March
There’s an old saying that if March’s weather comes in like a lamb it will go out like a lion. The reverse is also true if you believe this springtime superstition. The weather in my neighborhood outside Chicago on March 1st this year was partly sunny and nearly 60 degrees. Certainly a lamb not a lion. So, look for snow on March 31st. Again, if you believe in the old proverb.
This comes to mind this month as I’ve been planning an ancestral journey for this coming summer to the U.K. My mother, a fiercely proud woman of English heritage who sparked my interests in genealogy, was also a woman who believed in bigger forces, supernatural powers, and minor superstitions—drop a fork and you’ll be visited by a gentleman, pass the salt at the dinner table without placing it down first and you’ll have an argument, bury money on New Year’s Eve and unearth it after midnight and the future holds riches.
Mom was never rich.
What she was, however, was rich with the belief that heritage and place—where your ancestors lived and where you resided and where you were raised—were formidable powers in a life. I also hold that belief. The other day, as I worked through edits of a book length personal narrative of mine that will be published later this year—Daylight Saving Time: The Power of Growing Older from John Hunt Publishing’s O-Books imprint—I was reminded of how powerful Mom’s belief was and how it has forever impacted me.
Below is a short passage from Daylight Saving Time about this strong connection between ancestry and place, and the superstitions of the month of March.
An excerpt from Daylight Saving Time, by David W. Berner
Southwest Pennsylvania is a great steel beam that holds me true, arrow straight and unbendable. If you grow up in a steel town, you stand upright and proud. Not prideful, just undeniably certain of where you come from. No pretense. No Hollywood. Steel-town people have a hard-edged will, no gray in their truths. They will give you their very best if they know that you will do the same. If they are not deer hunters or bass fisherman, do not drink beer from long-neck bottles, or do not live and die by the sporting games grown men play, then they love someone who does. They prefer mountains to prairies, and rivers to oceans. They are raised in cold winters, and sticky summers, and beneath the ringing bells of churches where women wear hats and men wear ties, and little boys and girls hold out their hands and their tongues to take the holy wafer. Grandmothers live within walking distance. Fathers’ garages hold treasures—odd nails, strange screws, and hammers with carved wooden handles. Mothers’ kitchens never lose the aroma of coffee, a hot skillet, toasted bread, or salty broth. It is the America where the blue-collar man, the working class, was born. It doesn’t matter if you never toiled in a mill; it only matters that the ones before you did, big men who bulged from their shirts, who celebrated with a shot and a beer, who inhaled smoky air and then demanded their industrialist bosses find a better way, the men who insisted that the steel they produced also produced durable men who could live to love their families for a long time. Those unbendable beams—the real and the ones constructed in men’s souls—remain, holding up everything.
I think of my hometown’s hold on me as I walk the dog on this first day of March. The month is coming in like a lamb—sunshine and a consistent light breeze out of the south.
Before the day is over it will be comfortably warm. My mother never missed noting the weather on March’s first day, reminding my sister and me of the mysteries of March. If it came in like a lamb, she warned, it would go out like a lion, and spring would have to wait. It is the birth of March that finds me swimming in the past, thinking of steelworkers and sportsmen and shot-and-beer evenings and how I may not have carried on that tradition, yet it is deep inside me, tangled in the genes. The month of March and my mother’s warning of how the season would unfold have awakened a latent but irrepressible part of me. In my steel town you buried money on New Year’s Eve and cut a locket of hair on Good Friday for luck. You skipped school on opening day of the baseball season to go to Forbes Field to offer the Pirates the best chance of a great year. And on March 1st, you wished for the roughest weather possible so that it would be assured that spring would come fully alive in four weeks. Hope. That’s what it was about. Hope for something better. Hope for a good life. If hope in a steel town was born out of working hard, choosing what was right, and praying on Sundays, then certainly wishing for an early spring in a month that could easily be unpredictably cruel was a good way to live.
All of it comes together on this first day of the month—the DNA test, the influence of family, faith, and steel, and today’s sun through the naked trees, trees that will hopefully burst with buds in the coming weeks and reject the adage about the snarling seasonal lion. Walking in the day’s quiet early hours, I am reminded that everything on my mind today will guide my tomorrow and all the days ahead, and the steel beams that hold me up, despite the rust, will remain indestructible, the rivets tight and strong, and I will look to what the end of March will bring.
Photos: Bich Tran and Federated Art