I don’t believe in psychics, but I might owe something to one.

Before my mother was born, my grandmother Jo had her fortune told by a woman who lived in her apartment building. Though I don’t know her name, I can picture this woman welcoming Jo into her warm little kitchen, flowing skirt skimming the floor as she poured two cups of tea from the cast-iron kettle. That calm moment amid her neighbor’s cozy clutter may have been rare respite for my grandmother, who had a six-year-old son and an eleven-year-old daughter at home. Maybe the steaming vapors loosened something inside her. Maybe she cradled the cup in both hands as she made her confession—that she had been sure her missed periods meant menopause, that she didn’t know if she was prepared to become a mother again at her age.

I can see the neighbor staying those hands when my grandmother reached to take her final sip of tea, instructing her to close her eyes and swirl the sediment three times. Jo may have felt a little sheepish, but whether it was curiosity or desperation or some heady brew of both that spurred her on, she did as she was told. Her host smiled into the bottom of the cup, reading my grandmother’s fortune in the scattered leaves. She told Jo that she was to give birth to a daughter who would care for her in her old age. And my grandmother did.

My mother has told me a version of this story multiple times, and she must have heard it more than once from her own mother. I always thought it was a good story, but recently my feelings about it have become more complicated. I know it must have been my grandmother’s way of saying I’m so glad I had you. Maybe it was also her way of expressing the wish that she would be loved and cared for in an uncertain future. Still, I can’t imagine ever telling a child she was anything but wanted.

Seventy years after Jo’s reading, mysticism is having a moment. Crystals claim space on desktops and nightstands. Astrological signs have become key data points on many online dating profiles. And tarot readers, no longer confined to neon-lit storefronts, interpret beautifully illustrated arcana on Instagram.

Tasseography—the technical term for reading tea leaves—feels downright fusty by comparison. It was the Victorians’ favored form of divination, and a democratic one, requiring no special equipment, just the dregs of an everyday drink: a homey and practical magic. The 1921 book Tea-Cup Reading and Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves dubbed it “the simplest, truest, and most easily learned” method, explaining the meanings of myriad symbols, from acorn (improvement in health) to zebra (adventure in foreign lands). Nowadays though, practitioners are far harder to find than tarot readers or palmists or chart-wielding astrologers.

But I found one at a 90-year-old tearoom in New Orleans, a city I’d always wanted to see. I was still bleeding after miscarrying a pregnancy that was emphatically planned. My husband and I had learned that IVF was our only chance for conceiving, and after his-and-hers retrieval surgeries, plus weeks of pills and patches, nightly injections, and early-morning bloodwork, we were thrilled to find out I’d gotten pregnant on the first try. But at six and half weeks, the ultrasound heard no heartbeat. I booked tickets a few days later. I’m an anxious flier, but it was winter and I wanted to go someplace warm. I wanted to get out of my body; I could at least get out of New England.

So we walked along the Mississippi River nursing cups of chicory coffee. We listened to jazz on Frenchmen Street. We ate grilled oysters and drank fizzy cocktails that would have been forbidden a few weeks before. We wandered into voodoo shops crammed with candles, oils, incense, and charms, obeying the do-not-touch signs above altars heaped with offerings of shiny coins and cigarettes. And on our last day, we stumbled upon the tearoom. I’m not sure why I went inside. Though I devoured books about witchcraft and ESP as a kid, I’ve been a skeptic since adolescence. But I had that scrap of family lore in my head. Maybe I just wanted to hear history rhyme. Maybe I was hoping to get a good story out of it.

My reading was performed by Patricia, who told me to turn my cup seven times, then flip it over. “Let’s see what’s going on,” she said. She told me my lucky number, forecasted career shifts, predicted a trip to the mountains. “I see children,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Though I hadn’t planned to, I told her I’d had a miscarriage. It may have been the first time I’d actually said the word out loud. I’d informed my PCP through an online patient portal; I’d told the few friends who’d known I was pregnant via text message. Some things are easier to say to a stranger.

This stranger told me that I will have two children, a boy and a girl. And she said that I will be a good mother. I know she was telling me what I wanted to hear, but I still think it was kind. And in that moment it may have been helpful to hear her articulate so matter-of-factly what I hadn’t dared hope for out loud.

I hate the idea of hucksters taking money from vulnerable people. I’m wary of woo-woo trends, so quickly co-opted by a capitalist culture that tells us self-care and spirituality are things we can buy. I believe in science and logic and that, in times of trouble, a therapist is a far better person to consult than a fortune teller.

But I also understand a yearning for magic, sometimes a pretty good synonym for a sense of wonder, or a feeling of control. And I believe there is something sad and beautiful about a big-brained animal that sees symbols in random stimuli, that assigns names to arbitrary arrangements of stars, that looks for truth in the bottom of a teacup and meaning in the cards we’re dealt. I think it’s a minor miracle that we’re able to imagine a future when nothing is guaranteed, and no surprise that we sometimes need help getting started again. Tasseography comes from the French tasse, meaning “cup,” and the Greek graph, meaning “writing.” We don’t read tea leaves; we write stories with them. And stories help us to hope in a world where suffering is easier to predict than joy.


Image: “Tea Time” by Rumpleteaser, licensed under CC 2.0.

Jacqueline Houton
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