Mark my words

There's something delicious about fear. Not the kind of fear that comes with a crime, illness or tragedy, but the spine-tingling fear that rises from the unknown. I used to love the way fear made each pore of my skin come alive, the way the blood coursed through my body like a river, the way that -- for a split second -- fear made life heavy and urgent.

As a kid, I used to sleep with a cross around my neck to ward off vampires. I imagined that the vaulted roof of my attic room was the lid of a coffin.

If you had asked me about my favorite author in high school, I would have told you that I'd finally forsaken Agatha Christie for the less literary but far more frightening Stephen King.

So it was with zeal that I filed into a scary movie with a bucket of popcorn on a summer evening a decade ago. I was pregnant with my first child and looking forward to sitting in air-conditioning and feeling the rush of something else besides nausea.

I can't remember what the movie was. But I do remember what happened as the ghoulish plot unfolded. The popcorn caked in my throat. The baby flip-flopped frantically. The dark theater cloaked me in evil. Thrill gave way to a terrible foreboding.

"Let's go," I told my husband, standing suddenly.

"Why? We're right in the middle..."

"I don't know, I just don't feel right," I said vaguely, allowing him to believe I was having a mysterious, pregnancy-related illness.

The truth was that I was afraid for the baby. Without warning, I had changed from Buppie, the Vampire Slayer to Chicken Little. I couldn't sit there and enjoy the dark side of humanity without feeling like I was "marking" my unborn child.

I had heard older people talk about marking an unborn child many times. In my grandmother's day, a pregnant woman couldn't participate in the slaughter of farm animals, probably for the same reason I suddenly found it hard to watch horror movies -- gestation is no time to flirt with death.

Childbirth is at once so sinister and divine that every culture has superstitions about how the actions of the mother can mark a child for life.

According to Multicultural Manners, a fascinating book by Los Angeles Times columnist Norine Dresser, women in the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iran are sometimes "warned to stay indoors during a solar eclipse for fear of marking their babies with shadows (dark spots) on their faces or bodies."

Because they do not want to tempt fate, Orthodox Jews do not give baby showers before the birth, writes Dresser, and some Middle Eastern cultures go as far as to ignore newborns so that they don't lure the "evil eye." The Navajo believe that the mother's character flows into a child through breast milk.

Just last month I was visiting a pregnant friend whose family had immigrated here from India. She offered me a cup of saffron tea, then told me, "My aunt said if I drink this with boiled milk, the baby will have a light complexion."

In India, the lighter the complexion -- especially for girls -- the more marriageable a child becomes. My friend wasn't caught up in that tradition, but she drank the tea anyway: It couldn't hurt.

No matter how educated, how modern or agnostic, few mothers can escape the concern that their actions will permanently imprint babies. Now that my firstborn is 11, I think I can safely say that he avoided the kiss of Satan when his mother recklessly subjected him to a horror movie in utero.

My daughter, however, was not so lucky. I was sick with her the entire pregnancy, and always worried that I didn't keep down enough vitamins for her to be healthy. My fears were realized when she was born two weeks late and only a scrawny 6 pounds. But she quickly gained weight and, even though it took her a year and a half to walk, she was a normal toddler.

Then at the age of 2, she developed this insatiable hankerin' for salt. Chips. Pretzels. Popcorn. Peanuts. She was so impressed with salty foods, when we'd ask what she did in preschool, she'd answer, "I ate crackers."

I became concerned when I'd find discarded lunch-sized potato chip bags under the coffee table and under her bed. She was clearly a salt addict and I had to get her some help. So I started buying raw cashews and unsalted sunflower seeds. I'd offer her fruit whenever she asked for a snack.

But there was no stopping her. She'd go to her grandmother's and plow through a bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. She'd trade her apple for chips at school.

Playing to her vanity, I occasionally called her "Montana" because that was going to be the size of her backside if she didn't learn to control her cravings. At a meager 40 pounds, my 8-year-old laughed in my face while stuffing an entire Ritz cracker in her mouth.

Where did I go wrong? I wondered. What had I done to create such a pronounced tendency in my little girl? This wasn't something she had inherited, like big ears or tiny bones or brown eyes. This had all the signs of a marking.

And then I found out. Last week, scientists reported that mothers who have extreme morning sickness have a definite effect on their unborn children. For the rest of their lives, those babies will have a deep-seated need for salt.

Well, bless my soul. I guess the old folks weren't far off the mark as they'd quote the book of Ezekiel: "When the parents eat sour grapes, their children's teeth will be set on edge."

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