Licks of purple and brunt orange from the sunset licked the peaceful shoreline on this chilly night in Santa Monica. The mood on the shopping promenade was festive as tourists emptied their pockets of spare change to the jugglers and folk musicians that lined the sidewalks.
I found Patricia McCarthy Donnelly sitting demurely at a table, swaddled in an Aran sweater with a thin, gauzy scarf around her neck. The sign on the card table read “Irish Tea Leaf Readings: Only Lovely Fortunes in My Teacups!”
I heard the phrase “read the tea leaves” but had never pinpointed it to an Irish origin. According to the LearnAboutTea.com website, the ancient art of reading tea leaf patterns within a cup is called tasseography. Though the art of reading tea and wine sediments originated in ancient Greece, the Celtic nations perfected the art of reading tea leaves.
“The Irish, Welsh and Scottish people are said to be fey, which means ‘closer to the other side,’” explained Donnelly when I sat in the chair and asked about the custom.
She was born to read tea leaves with those saucer eyes of blue and green. Her eyes had a mystical sparkle to them as her intense gaze skimmed your soul.
Donnelly has been reading since she was four at her grandmother’s knee. “She taught me everything I knew until I was 27 and then from there, I practiced,” said the fifty-ish reader.
“For instance, she taught me to control myself because when you’re younger, you don’t have much control over what comes out of your mouth.”
When I asked how much she charged for this service, she described another element of the custom -- no money changed hands for the reading because inserting commerce into the exchange would imply that the good fortune was purchased and would therefore nullify the predictions.
I found it hard to believe that the amount of payment had nothing to do with the quality of the reading and said as much to her.
“I usually do the same reading no matter what,” was the reply. “But if you ask me if I’ll read you for a buck and you give me a buck, you’re going to get a buck reading.”
A sly smile escaped her lips.
“I know that won’t be the case here. I can already feel the generosity.”
She poured tea leaves into a clear bowl and stirred it with a wisk.
“This is the universe,” she explained. “Dip your cup into the bowl and let’s read what the universe has in store for you!”
I did as I was told and was then instructed to slowly pour the liquid out of the cup and into the bowl.
When that was finished, she took the tea cup from me.
“You will make a lot of money in bed this year.”
“At last! That career in pornography that I’ve been training all my life for is going to happen after all!”
She rolled her eyes.
“Not what I meant,” she said dismissively. “You do great thinking in bed and I assume it’s your wife I see in the bed with you. These are great conversations of love, planning and strategy. I see great partnership between you.”
I leaned in closer. The hook was in my mouth and she was reeling me in!
She then proceeded to tell me how three projects I am involved in would come to fruition by October, and a woman with a giraffe-like neck would be watching out for me.
A great fortune, indeed! I shook hands with my new friend, who asked me to let readers know that she does readings over the phone. Fire away and call her at 310-379-6653.
I called my mother to ask her what she knew about this tea leaf business.
“Lots,” she said flatly. “My mother and her mother were the tea leaf readers in the village.”
She said that as nonchalantly as she would describe the color of her eyes. It just proves that I have no talent with the tea leaves, because I didn’t see that coming!
Mike Farragher’s collection of essays are available on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com. He will be reading from his book at Watchung Booksellers (54 Fairfield Street, Montclair, New Jersey) on Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m.