When I left home for college, my Bubbie — the Yiddish term for grandmother — gifted me with a thin red bracelet to protect me from the harm of the evil eye. The tradition is rooted in the spiritual Jewish practice called Kabbalah, though the reasoning behind it is widely debated.
Some believe that a single woman should wear the red string around her wrist until it falls off naturally, indicating that she will soon be married. Others suggest that the red symbolizes fertility or protection against the bloodshed of war. All my Bubbie told me was that her mother had done the same for her and that the bracelet would be a talisman of good luck as I entered this next stage of my life.
My family is Jewish, but we’re not that Jewish. We belong to a reform congregation, and at least for me, my Jewish identity is more about heritage than religion. I wasn’t surprised that my Bubbie chose to evoke this Jewish tradition when I was preparing to leave home; just a few years earlier I received a slew of Jewish jewelry for my bat mitzvah celebration. But I had my suspicions that Bubbie’s gift had more to do with the color than the superstition.
My Bubbie has always been a bright red woman. She regards ladybugs as a symbol of hope and taught me from a young age that if some accessory or article of clothing is red and sparkly, we have to buy it. This affinity for red tracks with Bubbie’s overall personality: She is a formidable presence with a compassionate soul, loud and loyal with a social circle that extends across the world. That being said, Bubbie’s love for red is certainly directed, at least in part, by her superstitious nature.
Bubbie will be the first one to knock on wood if someone jinxes themselves. Instead of saying “bless you,” she will proclaim that your sneeze was an omen of truth, confirming the last thing you said in conversation. When I talked to her for this story, Bubbie shared with me a number of other superstitions that her family and friends adhered to over the years — if your nose itches, you’re about to kiss a fool. If you drop something, someone is talking about you. “Hope it’s good,” her mother would say in reply.
Now, I can’t confirm the empirical basis of these superstitions. I can’t even tell you that I really believe they’re true. What I can tell you is that every time someone jinxes themselves in conversation, a little piece of my Bubbie appears in the back of my mind and possesses me to knock on the nearest wood. If there’s no wood around, I’ll knock on my head. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Earlier this year, I bought my first car: a firetruck-red Fiat 500. Did I choose the color because of Bubbie? Not consciously. Did I think about Bubbie as I was making the purchase? Of course. I had to call her the minute I drove off the lot and relay the good news. I’ve spent so much time with my Bubbie over the course of my life that I’ve borrowed these little pieces of her identity and woven them into mine. It’s a blessing to be reminded of her at every possible opportunity, and the frequency with which it occurs is a testament to the strength and value of our relationship.
I’ve been a perfectionist since I was just a little kid, especially when it came to school — a quality which I likely learned from my genius mother. However, this perfectionism did not always serve me well.
For example, one day my fourth-grade class was informed that we would be quizzed on the 50 states and their respective capitals. I’ve never been very good at geography, so I was frustrated when I couldn’t seem to commit the elusive pairings to memory. Time was ticking, so I needed to get out the big guns — I had to ask my parents for help.
To this day, I maintain that this was a written test, so there was no need for me to know the pronunciation of each city. However, my nine-year-old self was positively certain that Topekah, Kan., was pronounced “toe-peck-ah” (while it’s actually pronounced “toe-pee-kah”). After arguing with my father for what felt like forever, he finally Googled it. I was devastated. I stormed off in true nine-year-old fashion and didn’t even finish studying for the quiz.
Now, whenever my parents and I quibble over some unimportant, indisputable fact, we cry out “toe-peck-ah” as a shorthand of saying, “I know I’m right, and I’ll prove it.” Sometimes I call “toe-peck-ah” on myself when I find that I’m digging my heels in too deep on something rather irrelevant. It’s a reminder of that lesson I learned from my parents over a decade ago: just calm down and Google it.
Perhaps the only reason I needed to learn this laissez-faire attitude from my parents is that they also taught me to be logical, precise and firm. Those traits again derive from my mother’s side of the family.
Her father, my Grandpa, is always pointing out grammatical errors. He hates when people swap the noun “invitation” out for the verb “invite” and insists that everyone around him understands that you stand behind a lectern but upon a podium. One Thanksgiving, that entire side of the family had a debate over dinner regarding whether or not a girl’s hair must be braided for her to technically be wearing “pig-tails.” Eventually, we brought out the dictionary, and yes, the braids are a linguistic prerequisite.
Thinking through all of these experiences, it becomes increasingly clear that almost all of my niche interests and habits can be traced back to the interests and habits of the people I love. It’s nice to know that I carry those pieces of them with me wherever I go and that they crop up when I least expect it.
There are also the habits I picked up from all the people who are no longer in my life — that advice I got from my camp counselors in 2013, that phrase my friend group could not stop saying our senior year of high school, that sweater I bought because it fit with my freshman year roommate’s aesthetic. Each and every part of me was inspired by the world I choose to live in, even if only for a moment.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini, or maybe it’s just because I’m human, but I am constantly taking inspiration from the people around me. With every new adaptation, I am constructing my own personal culture. After two decades of curation, it has become a beautiful amalgamation of all my favorite experiences to date.
The general concept of culture exists on a gradient, meaning that there will be overlapping cultures within a town, a region, a country, etc. Just as how large communities develop a culture over time, our little worlds will effectively develop a culture of their own. We pull from and adapt to what’s around us, forging a new and unique identity as a mosaic of all our experiences.
Lots of things in life follow this template. Internet trends ebb and flow, emulating and influencing larger cultural shifts. Even within a single classroom, a culture can develop over the course of the semester which leads to the development of certain tendencies and inside jokes, distinctive to that group of 20 to 30 people who knew each other for just six short months. Each insular culture in which an individual participates has the propensity to stick with them for their whole lifetime.
For me, that manifests through my participation in many overlapping cultures: that of my hometown, my workplace, The Daily, my house. Each of those environments offers unique opportunities for identity-shaping which I take in stride each and every day.
It’s comforting to know that all my past relationships live on as a sliver of who I am. Even ephemeral experiences are commemorated. Even seemingly insignificant experiences create their own meaning. And when combined together, they all create me.
Statement Correspondent Melanie Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.