I have a confession to make: I am a very superstitious person. I always pick up pennies I see lying on the ground or floor in front of me, secretly rejoicing when one is face up. I read my horoscope every day, and I have to make sure the calendar on my desk at home has the correct date on it before I leave for work each morning.
I come by these traits genetically. My father had a series of rituals that he lived by, particularly in relation to sports. He always stood when the national anthem was played and wore certain caps faithfully when he watched his beloved sports teams. During those fondly remembered playoff and World Series glory days of the Pirates, he assigned us seats in our living room to watch them. (One time the Pirates started to lose. He looked over, glared at me and ordered me to move to my appropriate place. I became a believer when they won that game.) The Terrible Towel had to be placed on top of the TV just right before the Steelers took the field, draped over the edge to ensure its legendary powers would seep into the screen and work their magic.
My mother told me tales of standing outside with an empty purse during a full moon asking for some mysterious being to fill it up and then finding lost money or winning at bingo. (I tried it ... it didn't work for me.) Other family members had lucky numbers and dreams that helped them win prizes and score in the legal and illegal lottery.
But my own system of good luck charms and precautions couldn't save me from a string of bad luck this spring. As a professor, I regularly travel with students. And I hit the trifecta of troubles on a spring trip to Portland, Maine, for a conference.
Flight switches and delays on the way forced our group to split up and take three different flights. One group spent 10 hours stuck in the Philadelphia airport, flying late that night erratically in turbulence that preceded a surprise 6-inch snowstorm. Did I mention the next day was April Fools' Day?
We made the best of it, sloshing through sloppy spring snow as we tried to explore Portland. Then on the second night a small kitchen fire drove us all to evacuate the hotel at 3 a.m. Sleep-deprived and more than a bit cranky, we arrived at the airport at midday, so eager to leave. But the airlines had canceled most of our return tickets home by mistake. Re-routed and delayed again, we spent three hours waiting in Washington, D.C., arriving at Pittsburgh International much later than expected. Did I mention there were 13 in our group?
I dragged myself home that night, dumped everything out of my suitcase and jumped into bed. The house felt cold, but I convinced myself I had just brought some of that Maine chill home with me. When I woke up the next morning, I was running late and left too quickly.
Shoot, I thought, as I drove to the park-n-ride. I forgot to fix my calendar. Better watch out. Stop thinking like that, I told myself.
Sure enough, I got home that night to find the thermostat registering 55 degrees. Even the cat was shivering. After a repairman fixed the thermostat, the house slowly started to warm up. I turned the calendar and slept under four blankets.
I know I'm not alone in looking for signs and lucky charms, and I realize luck alone can't make our lives run smoothly. I can, though, recount one time that good luck changed my life forever. That was when I met my husband.
1981 had been a particularly lousy year. My father had died, and a month later my then-boyfriend ended our relationship. Desperate for a change, I left my newspaper job at the end of the year for a public relations position at what was then called Eye and Ear Hospital. I soon began to miss my friends and the newsroom.
A good friend convinced me to quit moping and come to a small New Year's Eve party at her house. We had a good time, and I met John, who had come with a friend. Nice guy, I thought, as I drove home to a traditional New Year's Day dinner of sauerkraut and pork -- good luck food, as any Slovak-Italian girl knows.
Well, the next day, I was walking down Lothrop Street to the hospital as he was headed up on his way to classes at Pitt's School of Dental Medicine. We stopped, talked and made a plan to meet for lunch that day. That lunch turned into lunch nearly every day for weeks and a relationship and marriage that lasted almost 25 years until he died suddenly four years ago. I was lucky to have him as my husband and best friend. I miss him every day.
At the funeral home during his viewing, my daughter and son asked if we could improve a soccer field in their dad's memory to ease our sorrow and that of our family and friends. I said yes immediately, not worrying then about finances and approvals, let alone how to pull it off.
We did, though, because we are blessed to have a good friend like Tim Kish and a great organization in Jaguars United Soccer that helped see it through. We raised money, sought and obtained approval from Pleasant Hills Borough and ordered a scoreboard for Maize Field, where John had coached travel and high school teams.
The soccer organization and borough scheduled a dedication ceremony to unveil the scoreboard. It just happened to be the only dry day in that soggy and unpredictable April. Surrounded by friends, family and young soccer players, we laughed and cried as we recalled his love of the game and how embarrassed he'd be over all the fuss.
Just as we were finishing, Ella, the daughter of my friend Pam Thompson, called out to all of us to look up. The sun had gone behind some clouds, and as they moved aside, a small rainbow emerged and stayed there for quite some time.
I've kept that sign from heaven close to my heart since then, pulling it out when I feel overwhelmed that so much of the joy and comfort he brought into my life is gone. I'm sure lucky to have had him in my life. Some people never get that lucky at all.
Helen Fallon is a professor at Point Park University's School of Communication, director of the university's honors program and a part-time copy editor at the Post-Gazette (hfallon@point park.edu).