By ancestry I am half Pennsylvania Dutch, and my Germanic ancestors were a very superstitious breed of immigrants to the new world, a few centuries ago.
Although sometimes hard to find in our corner of Western Pennsylvania this current century, just a few decades ago it was common to find Dutch Hex signs mounted over every barn you would encounter (and even some garages). Go to Eastern PA and you will find them more common, but not as popular as they used to be. It was believed that the Hex sign would give good luck to the crops specifically and the farm in general. I was raised on tales that supported this belief,such as when a non-dutch bought a farm and took down the Hex, then disaster or misfortune was soon to follow. Nowadays, the hex has been surplanted by the star as a symbol of good luck and fortune.
My parents were raised in these Old Pennsylvania Dutch beliefs and one of the more bizarre Fortean beliefs was odd indeed, it concerned the supernatural nature of birthmarks.
There is nothing coincidental about odd birthmarks, according to the folklore of the Dutch. In Medieval and Colonial times odd birthmarks were perceived as an indication the person was a witch or had some preternatural powers. This superstition still lingers today as many people have curious birthmarks that resemble a splash of liquid across various parts of their body. Called Port Wine Stain marks (PWS) these birthmarks sometimes have a purplish hue that makes it look like the person has been stained by a deep purple liquid like concord grape wine. Many superstitious families have their own stories about how these spills were transferred to the baby during pregnancy, many can be found here at Birthmarks.com.
When I was young I was told of many such odd birthmark stories. One was of a PWS, my cousin was at a restaurant with her husband in the late 60's when her water broke. Her husband was so startled that he spilled his glass of wine across her belly. OF course true to the common format of these PWS stories the baby was born with a stain across her abdomen identical to that of the spilled wine on her mother at the beginning of her birth. The girl was just a few years younger than I and I remember during a family picnic she showed me the purple splash just above her belly button and I was an instant believer.
My mother also had a friend who during her pregnancy always had a craving for strawberries. She had to have them every day. Sure enough when the baby was born there was a strawberry birthmark on his chest. According to her you could even see the green leafy top, as if it had been freshly picked.
However the strangest birthmark story my parents ever told me hit closer to home, it involved my older brother David.
In the late 1940s my parents lived in Detroit, my father was a laborer and they had little money to support their family with three small children, and they lived in a cheap tenement house in the inner city. Their next door neighbors were an older black couple Hattie and Sherman, who they quickly became friends with. They would play cards and go bar hopping together. My mother became pregnant with their fourth child and while my father was out working, Hattie would help her with the daily chores when it became harder and harder to get around. Finally during a hot summer day while Hattie was making lunch for my mother and herself, the pains started and the water broke. My mother quickly dressed herself for the trip to the hospital and Hattie packed a suitcase. Being there was no elevator in the old tenement building and they lived on the 10th floor, they had to make their way down the steep stairway to get to the taxi that awaited them to go to the Hospital. My mother went first, slowly waddling down the stairs and Hattie followed, suitcase in hand.
It was very hot in the stairwell and my mother's sweaty hand slipped on the railing and started to tumble down the stairs.
Hattie threw down the baggage and dived toward my mother, knowing sure well that if she tumbled all the way not only would the baby be lost, but my mother might be killed as well. Quickly Hattie reached out and grabbed my mothers leg on the upper thigh, and both spun around and slammed into the railing. Hattie's grip was so tight that it caused a great bruise on my mother's leg. Both women sat for a while to regain their breath and cry a bit from the stress. Finally they made it down to the cab and to the hospital.
My brother David was born without further incident, and when it came time to do the first diaper changing my mother found something startling. On the baby's leg there was a huge birthmark. It was at the same area as the bruise she received from Hattie's daring rescue. The birth mark was a face. Hattie's face.
Hattie had a special sense and while she did not exploit it for personal gain, she seemed to be pre-cognitive. A church going lady she saw it as a gift from the Spirit of God and would share whenever something stirred her heart. My mother was religious but not a church goer, so she saw it as some sort of magical thing. And she was sure that Hattie's magic was what caused the mark of her face on her son's leg.
Family and friends along with Hattie and Sherman both gathered to wondered at the mark. It was a miniature portrait with eyes, nose and smiling mouth. Even the hair style matched the elderly woman's. They all took it as a sign that Hattie had saved the baby's life and my brother would carry that mark as a sign all the days of his life.
But it was not to be so.
Eventually my parents moved from Detroit to Erie, where my father found more lucrative employment at a local steel mill. As the family grew they would still make an occasional trip back to Detroit, and of course my mother would always catch up with Hattie. They remained friends through the years. Then when my brother David was 12 years old, they received the horrible call from Sherman that Hattie had passed away during the night. They travelled back to Detroit and paid their respects. While staying with relatives at the time of the funeral, my brother David was startled to find that the birthmark had changed color. For 12 years it was a dark brown, but now it had turned lighter. Over 3 days the birth mark faded away entirely. All that was left was a small indentation to his skin like a pock mark.
Was it coincidence? Of course my parents did not think so, Hattie had died and the paranormal mark she had left on their son faded away with her. A testimony that it was no mere birthmark, but a supernatural sign.
I was born many years after Hattie's death, but heard the story told over and over by both my parents, my siblings and by Sherman himself who visited us before he too passed away.
Coincidence or a supernatural sign? Like many other odd occurrences we face day to day, it is a matter of perspective. To some it is just old wives tales, to others it shows a deeper meaning of life- as if we have had a brief glimpse at the pattern of the cloth on the Creator's loom.
Until Next Time,