My mom Kathleen, left, with her sister Sally, one of her six sisters, in their house -Londonderry, 1940’s.
Those with Celtic blood – The Irish, Scottish and Welsh, are said to have more “fey”, or “gift of the sight”, than most. Reading the leaves in “cupan tae” ( Gaelic for cup of tea), was perfected in Ireland, a culture steeped in fairies and gypsies.
Mom may have obtained her gift for tea leaf reading by osmosis from the gypsy soothsayers and “seers of the otherworld” that rolled down her street in their caravans in Londonderry when she was a child.
Tea leaf and wine sediment readings, called “tasseography”, date back to ancient civilizations in China and Greece. In Ireland, tea first became available to the wealthy class in the early 1800’s, until a cheaper version became available to the masses in the late 1800’s and it caught on like bog fire.
Lots of milk was added to the strong, cheap, loose leaf tea, and it was left brewing on the stove all day, until you could stand a spoon up in it, according to Arbor Teas website. Or as my Irish mom Kathleen said: “you could tar the road with it”.
Forever the prankster, Mom’s leaf reading journey began when she was in her 20’s, while working as a button-holer sewing shirts for British soldiers in Ireland during WWII. One day she told a co-worker that she could read tea cups. It must have been a fun escape at tea time from the repetitive piece work on the shirt factory floor.
The next day, mom received a gift from the girl, because “the parcel” she saw in the girl’s cup was waiting for her when she got home as mom predicted.
Given the copious amounts of tea the Irish consume, Mom would have had a few cups to read. On The examiner.com website it says: “there is no country in the entire world that drinks as much tea per capita as Ireland. On average, Irish citizens drink four cups of tea a day and some drink six or more. It is not uncommon for a pot of tea to be left brewing on the stove all day. An afternoon tea break is socially mandatory whether at meetings, or a convention.”
When asked how she could read the cups Mom said: “I make up lies and people believe me”. But giving free readings with accurate predictions sealed her fate. She soon became the reluctant tea leaf reader for the family of eleven that she grew up in, and others that she knew in the area where her ancestors had lived for centuries.
Mom did less tea cup reading after she moved to Canada in the 1950’s, but she always did it when we visited my Aunt Bernie’s house in Vancouver after mass in the 1960’s and 1970’s. My aunt (her sister) in her Irish lilt, would ask: “Kay, will you read me cup?” Mom would gaze away, waiting to be persuaded: “oh come on Kay” she would say. This served to heighten the aura of her special powers. Then her grey blue eyes would soften, as she would grant her sister’s wish.
Us kids had no computers or Ipods to occupy us back then, so all the little ears of her kids, and nieces and nephews in the house would hear their conversation, and gather around the kitchen table like snakes being lured into a box by Saint Patrick, to witness the mysterious custom from that magical land far, far, away that the sisters spent so many hours reminiscing about.
It was fun for us kids to bust up tea bags in the pot, guzzle down the cups of tea, and swirl around the last drops in the cups to spread the leaves,
then sit and wait patiently, cups in hand. When she held my cup, the jokester would say: ” it’s Annie, the Tea Granny”.
As Mom’s delicate hand snatched each of our cups, she turned them towards us, and revealed the shape of a new coat in the tea leaves for the cold weather, or the shape of a bus, which meant you were going on a “wee trip”. We visualized the pictures through her eyes.
When my hubby and I visited our lovely relatives in Ireland in the 1980’s, they gave us cups of tea along with large plates of fish and chips, or a full meal. It was high tea, a social gathering, even at 10pm. We knew no thirst or hunger on the hospitable Isle.
Mom passed away a few years ago, and I cherish the memory of the fading art of reading the leaves, and the special “tae” times we shared.