A Tea Cup, a Convict, and a wise old Grandmother

I come from a long line of tea leaf readers. I have seen my future in the bottom of a cup. But more importantly, my past has been swayed by the reading of the leaves.

My Grandpa Jack emigrated from Cornwall, England after World War I. His father had been killed in action somewhere in France and my great grandmother and her three boys took the slow boat over to Ellis Island and eventually moved on to Minnesota, where Jack grew up. While he was taken out of England as a young boy, the young English boy was never taken out of him. Until his dying day he drank tea after every meal, preferably two cups, with sugar and cream. And whenever we ate at their home, which was often, we would sip tea with him after the meal was over.

There were special types of tea that we would have at Grandpa Jack’s. My grandparents would periodically get packages in the mail with their favorite brands which couldn’t be found in the American supermarket. But the most popular was the loose leaf tea. My grandma would heat the water, warm the tea pot, and then mix the loose tea with the boiling water. The lid would go on and the sheep’s wool tea cozy would be fitted in place. Then we would wait. Generally there was some old black licorice we could gnaw on that was kept in the back of the cupboard, so tough it perhaps was brought over from the mother country during the immigration process.

When the tea was finally ready to drink we would wait expectantly. My grandmother would pour our tea and note whether there were enough leaves to take a good reading or not. We wouldn’t fully know until we had finished our cup. As a child, the trick was to not drink too quickly, but let the leaves settle as you slurped. If we were lucky, we would end with a layer of tea leaves at the bottom of our cup. It was then that the magic would happen.

There were strict rules for reading tea leaves in my grandparents’ home. First, you must take the cup and turn it over on your saucer. Second, you must spin the cup three times. Third, you must turn it over to reveal the message. Fourth, you must never, ever, point at the tea leaves in the cup.

The whole process was marked by anticipation. Intricate stories would reveal themselves in the little black specks at the bottom of the tea cup. In many ways it was similar to the ancients gazing up at the evening sky and reading the stories in the heavens. I remember tea leaves telling of dogs and donkeys, joy and sorrow. There were tractors and trees, and all sorts of potential disasters if we didn’t obey our parents. If a drip of tea escaped while reading the leaves it meant there would be crying in your future. Not a good thing. Grandpa Jack always found something to read in the bottom of that cup.

But it wasn’t until later in life that I realized the full potential of the tea leaf reading. We had driven across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains, where my other set of grandparents lived. We didn’t often see Bob and Zoe, my father’s parents. When we did visit we made sure to get some good stories. And it wasn’t until I was married that the dots connected, or shall we say, the tea leaves aligned.

We sat down to eat with my grandparents and my Grandma Zoe told the story of her childhood. Growing up on a ranch in South Dakota, she had grown up tough, tough enough to knock my grandpa down in a boxing match when they were teens. They still got married afterwards, so it was ok. We heard of rattlesnakes and cattle rustlers, outhouses and sod houses. But what fascinated me was how the reading of tea leaves quite possibly saved my family’s life.

The West was still quite wild in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Men would work their way across the vast expanse to make their fortune or hide from their misfortune. And it was the latter which drove a tramp to thumb a ride with my great grandfather. He took him on as a hired hand, keeping him fed and clothed in exchange for work around the ranch. It was the way of things, a chance to help those who found themselves in times of distress.

But this particular vagrant had a mean streak. My great grandmother, Grandma Edith, began to piece together a clearer picture of his character and past through his actions and bragging. There was the time when she happened to look up and see the tramp poised to drop a brick on Grandpa Roy’s head while they repairing a wall. She called out and the brick never hit its target. There were boasts about his other life that he shared at the table. There were even possessions that went missing. Piecing together the available facts, it was clear that this man was on the run from the law, and it would end poorly for my great grandparents if nothing was done. So Grandma Edith formed a plan, and that plan revolved around a tea cup.

One day, when the meal was over and the tea was poured, the conversation turned to the future and the supernatural. Grandma Edith casually began to chat about her abilities. She regaled those at the table of her family’s ability to know secrets and divine the times. Finding a listening ear from the vagrant, she continued to tell of powers and divination, palm readings and distant voices. With every story the man inched closer and wanted more. Finally she offered to read the tea leaves from his cup, if he really wanted to see. Clearly a superstitious man, he eagerly accepted and watched as his future unfolded before his eyes.

The tradition of the house was kept, and the cup was spun and read. With a slight gasp Grandma Edith gazed at the cup. Suspense mounted. She furrowed her brows and shook her head. The vagrant was beside himself in anticipation. “What was she thinking?” After a long exhale, she began to speak.

“I think this must be wrong. Maybe we should try again.”

“No. No!” The man blurted. “Tell me what it says!”

“Well…do you see that spot there?” Signaling with her nose. “That looks like a man running. A fast man. A quick man.”

“I’m fast. That must be me.”

“Perhaps. I think you are right. But what concerns me is what you see over there.” Again, pointing her nose at the cup. “It doesn’t looks like he is running to something, but away from something.”

The color began to drain from his face.

“Do you see those spots there? It looks like there are some others who are getting close to the runner. Maybe they are trying to catch him?”

The man clenched his jaw.

“Yes…they seem very close to catching him…But it is probably all wrong. I think we just got a bad batch of leaves. Have a good night!”

The next morning the man was gone, along with a pair of Grandpa Roy’s pants, the money from his wallet, and his revolver. But as the family agreed, it was worth it.

And that is how tea leaves quite possibly saved my family’s life.