Valley Voices

Telling a fortune — and strengthening family bonds — in the grounds of hot Armenian coffee

The thick coffee grounds from which fortunes would be read by Pauline Sahakian’s father, an after-dinner ritual she enjoyed as a girl and now recalls with fondness.
The thick coffee grounds from which fortunes would be read by Pauline Sahakian’s father, an after-dinner ritual she enjoyed as a girl and now recalls with fondness. Contributed

The dining room was quiet, a stark contrast to the laughing and talking minutes earlier. Aunts and uncles sat at the round, oak table from which my mother had lifted dinner plates and serving bowls and set demitasse cups filled with steaming Armenian coffee. As they sipped, the pungent aroma floated toward the high ceiling of our white-washed, wood farmhouse on a 40-acre vineyard in Kerman.

With elbows planted firmly on the white tablecloth, my mother crocheted as a bride-to-be, cheeks resting in the palms of our hands, my cousins and I leaned expectantly toward my father, the master coffee grounds reader. When the coffee was drunk and cups turned over onto saucers, the grounds ran downward into intricate patterns my father would translate into stories.

My aunts and uncles, all first-generation Americans, enjoyed this tradition as part of their own upbringing. And so they carried on with humor, taking turns passing their cups to my immigrant father. With a feigned seriousness, Dad rose to the occasion. He would study the lines and blotches, raising then wrinkling his brow, looking for clues, as he rotated a cup this way and that.

Aunt Rose was first to hand her cup to my father. A hush fell over the table as everyone waited for the master to speak, and he took his time, relishing his role. “You will be receiving a visitor soon from far away, Rose.” He tilted the delicate cup to better inspect the grounds. The robust aroma wafted toward my nostrils. “Yes. He is a stranger wearing an overcoat and fedora hat. He carries a suitcase and seems to be smiling.”

“Do you hear that, Rosie?” chided Uncle Sam to his wife. “I told you we should sell our house and buy a bigger one with three bedrooms. Now we’re going to have a visitor with nowhere to sleep!”

“Sam’s right, Rose! You should have listened to your husband.” Aunt Diane, the youngest of my mother’s sisters, joined forces with her teasing brother-in-law.

“You’ll need an extra bathroom, too,” Uncle Ernie taunted, adding to his wife Diane’s goading of her older sister.

“Then you’d better get a night job,” Rose instructed her husband, jabbing his shoulder with her elbow, barely missing their son, Jimmy’s nose.

Our giggles rose and fell in a wave around the table.

“Well,” Dad continued, now speaking to Aunt Diane as he inspected the pattern of grounds in her coffee cup, “I see a messenger with a thick envelope. It looks like you and Ernie will be inheriting money soon. Maybe you could share your good fortune with your sister?”

“Yes! Maybe you’d like to give us money to help buy a new house? Or better yet, we’ll invite the visitor to stay with you two!” Aunt Rose grinned as if she had won in a game of Canasta, a popular card game my aunts and uncles often played together. Everyone was laughing now, including Rose, our fiery, petite, naturally red-headed aunt.

Rose grabbed Sam’s cup and handed it to my father. “Read Mr. Big Shot’s who wants a bigger house,” she ordered. My uncle, endlessly amused by his wife’s spirit, reached his arms around her neck and made snorting sounds in her ear, sending the adults into hooting laughter and us kids from the table and into the living room. We could hear Aunt Rose laughing as we scrambled to safety from the wild boar.

As a child, I loved the weekends that aunts, uncles, and cousins visited our farm. Cousin Ritchie brought his BB gun, and he and Uncle Sam headed through the vines to try their luck at shooting birds. Tommy, Jimmy, Laurie, and I often raced to the back of the 40 acres to play in the irrigation ditch. My mom and aunts prepared pilaf and string bean casserole in the kitchen while Dad lit the BBQ, and the smell of burning grape stumps, along with tobacco from Uncle Ernie’s pipe, wafted across the vines.

When day turned to dusk, we hosed off on the back steps, changed into dry clothes, and hustled into the house for dinner. Sitting around the kids table, we laughed with our mouths full of pilaf and argued about who held their breath the longest under the ditch water. But as soon as the plates were cleared and the coffee served, we nestled ourselves between our parents’ elbows, around the large, oak dining table, waiting eagerly for the fortune-telling to begin. Who would be finding money? Who would be expecting visitors? Who would be taking a trip?

The merriment of my father reading coffee grounds around the oak dining table, turning a demitasse cup this way and that, a smile forming on his lips, laughter in his hazel eyes, is a cherished memory of love and family — aunts, uncles, cousins spending the day on our vineyard.

Pauline Sahakian, Ed.D. is a retired Clovis English teacher, Fresno State composition and education instructor, and UC Merced Writing Project director. She was the 1994 Fresno County Teacher of the Year, CA Teacher of the Year Finalist, and 2016 CSU Fresno Noted Alumni Award recipient. Reach her at