“No, I have not been drinking!” my mother insisted as she paused to take a sip. “This is the national drink of those marvellous people from the New Guinea Highlands. It’s called Kava Kava!”
I heard the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass.
“Deeanne brought it back from her last visit home. She thought it might help me with my nerves and it has changed everything! I simply float through the days.”
A muffled voice in the background briefly took my mother’s attention away from the phone. “Yes, Deanne, get the door. Quickly, quickly.” She returned with a new excitement in her voice. “I have to go. I have a visitor.”
“Who is it?”
“No one you know. I have to go… Hello Marie.”
“Marie? Marie the cleaner?”
“It’s none of your business. I have to go… Would you like a drink Marie?”
And with that the line went dead.
I didn’t need a live connection to know the scene that was playing out in my mother’s living room. A hapless group of home care workers and people she’d met in mental health wards was gathering around her…
“Kava Kava for everyone Deeanne… Oh I love your shoes. The op shop? Surely not!”
My mother, Liz, would be happily bustling amongst her guests, well in her element as hostess-with-the-mostest anti-psychotic medication in the cupboard.
Once availed with their own liquid opioids, her guests would be ushered by Deeanne to an impressive polished blackwood table where they would sit quietly and wait for the proceedings to begin. Then seating herself imperiously at the head of the table, my mother would embark on a long speech about her own medical history before solemnly nodding to each guest to briefly outline their woes for the week.
For some, it was the little things in life that continually plagued them; working out how much money to hand over in the supermarket, reading the bus timetable or remembering to take their medication. For others, it was the continual habitations in their heads or the eardrum shattering thoughts of the neighbours that drove them to despair.
However large or small their problems, my mother’s weekly guests all brought a need for safety and acceptance around her table and, perhaps, reassurance from the readings she would dispense.
Tasseography, or tea leaf reading, is an ancient form of fortune telling first practiced in medieval Europe and popular amongst desperate peasants the world over. Many of my ancestors were well practiced in the art and my Great Aunt Elsbeth was notorious throughout Moonee Ponds for her ability to read the future in a cup. Elsbeth had always had a particular fondness for my mother, recognising not only that their names shared the same derivation, but that they also had a certain colour of soul. In her later years, she gave great attention to teaching the younger Elizabeth the tricks of the tea leaf trade before she herself passed on to the next realm. But it was not until my mother was well into widowhood that she took up the practice in earnest and reinvented herself as a suburban seer, attracting the adoration and spare coinage of the suburb’s most vulnerable.
Deeanne delivered a giant tea pot to the centre of the table, steam drifting lazily up from the spout. Tiny ornate China tea cups followed, each placed carefully in front of a guest and then the tea, black no sugar, was poured. When she had gone around the table, Deanne took her usual place at the right hand of my mother and enthusiastically poured herself a brew.
“Marie. Would you like to start?” my mother asked as way of an order.
All eyes turned to Marie as she silently and shakily lifted her cup. Schizophrenia had left her particularly ill equipped to deal with social situations and she withered under the weight of the group’s sudden attention. Nonetheless, she valiantly brought the cup of hot tea to her lips and with one long, loud slurp, drank the contents, careful not to swallow the leaves.
“Marvellous!” My mother peered dramatically into Marie’s cup, “Now let’s have a look.”
With the synchronicity of a chorus line, the group leaned forward in their chairs, straining to absorb every nuance of the read. Liz ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ as she turned the cup around in her hands.
“I see a bird – that’s terribly good luck. And a frog, see there? A little frog.” My mother tipped the cup in Marie’s direction but not far enough or for long enough to be in any way revealing. “Frogs are also terribly good luck. And I think that might be the Eiffle Tower. Goodness Marie, you are in for a big week!”
An audible sigh went around the table as everyone leaned back in their chairs and several guests reached for their Kava Kava. My mother triumphantly placed the tea cup back on its saucer and pushed it across the table towards Marie who looked the most relieved of all.
A number of managers from the Council had contacted me with concerns about my mother’s fortune telling antics. They felt the well attended weekly sessions undermined the integrity of their Home Care Program, leading staff into my mother’s social circle, or as one particularly emotional caller insisted, her cult. I always assured them I would keep an eye on things.
“How did your little soiree go?” I asked Liz during our next phone conversation.
“It wasn’t a soiree because it was in the middle of the day” she corrected me tersely. “In any case, there’s no point lecturing me because it’s a legitimate part of the new exchange economy – I checked with the Post Office. I can’t help it if people want to turn up at the house and provide a service to me and then I want to provide a service to them and we all pay and we all win. None of us win very much in our everyday lives, you know.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to bring Kava Kava into the country.” I suggested gently.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous. Deanne’s mother drinks it all the time!” my mother shot back defiantly.
“But do you really think it’s fair to people with serious mental illnesses to pretend to read their futures?”
“What do you mean pretend?”
“Well, it’s always a good luck story. How can every sign in the leaves means good luck?”
There was a pause as my mother collected herself for the response.
“I admit it is funny how the leaves seem to fall for people with a certain colour of soul. But that’s something you wouldn’t really understand, is it darling?”
And with that the line went dead.