By Bob Chrisman
My mother and her three sisters believed in the Law of Threes. Well, actually they believed in a “hard” law and a “soft” one. Let me explain.
The basic Law of Threes states that all bad things happen in groups of three. Only bad things, never good ones. The hard law states that if a death places the law in motion, the next two events must involve deaths. The soft law allows for a bad thing (not a death) to happen and then two more bad things, which could involve a death or two, although deaths are not required to fulfill the soft law.
I thought for the longest time that only my mother and her sisters believed in the Law of Threes, but I found out I was wrong.
A college friend called me to say that his 92-year-old mother had died. I expressed my sympathy and made all of the appropriate noises. I couldn’t help but think that his mother’s death had fulfilled the Law of Threes started by the death of another friend’s 92-year-old mother in early February and my own 92-year-old mother’s death at the end of that month—a perfect example of the Law of Threes. Inside I felt guilty for even thinking that way.
When I went to the house to pay my respects to my friend and his family, I sat on the sofa next to his youngest sister. She told me how much she would miss her mother and then paused.
“You know, Bob, I worry about the next two deaths that will follow. Who will die?”
She must have seen the look of surprise on my face because she quickly explained, “Deaths happen in threes. At least that’s what my family always said.” What a relief to know that other people believed in the Law of Threes.
“I understand,” I said. “Let me tell you my story.”
When I was little, my mother would fix my breakfast and then sit at the kitchen table and read the paper while I ate. I knew something was up when she would “Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!” before closing the paper, folding it, and heading for the phone.
“Faye, did you see where Mildred Shunkwilder died yesterday? You know her. She was in Vera’s class in high school. Yes, yes, that’s the one. She married the Sweet boy and they moved to his parents’ farm. Yes, I know. You better call Annie. I’ll call Vera. We can all keep our eyes out for numbers two and three.”
She would place the receiver of the old black phone back in the cradle and shake her head. “I wonder who the next two will be.” She would then call Aunt Vera to place her on alert.
Phone calls flew back and forth. The sisters watched the newspaper. They contacted relatives and friends for information about people from whom they had heard nothing in years. When they discovered someone else who they all knew had died, they would breathe easier yet they didn’t relax until the third death had occurred. Then life for the sisters would return to normal, for a while.
My Aunt Faye fell victim to the Law of Threes in the late 1970s. My Aunt Vera joined her group of three in the late 1990s, followed by my Aunt Annie, who died a few years later. Even as their numbers grew smaller, they carried out their death watches. Finally, my mother was left alone to keep track of the law, but by then she was in her 80s and people she knew were dying all the time.
Even when she resided in the nursing home she would greet me with the news of the latest death. “You know Herbie died, didn’t you?” Herbie was a distant cousin by marriage. His second wife lived down the hall in the same nursing home. “That’s number two. Woodie died last month.” I waited for news of who was number three. I think Emmett, another church member, completed the law a couple of months later.
Then my mother died—number two in the series of three. The Law of Threes wasn’t completed for another five months, at least as far as I knew.
My friend’s sister looked at me after I finished my story. “Would you mind if I borrowed your mother’s death and the death of your high school friend’s mother to complete my three deaths?”
I couldn’t deny her request. I gave her those deaths. You don’t want a Law of Threes—especially not a hard one—hanging open.
Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose pieces Hands, Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too have all appeared in red Ravine. Hands is about the death of his 92-year-old mother.