When I was in the fifth grade, for our science fair project I partnered with a friend to test the extra-sensory perception of all our classmates. Amber and I made a deck of cards with squares, circles, and triangles and held them up to each individual to find the one classmate who could guess the most cards correctly.
I remember testing myself, over and over, staring at the back of my card and willing the shape to be revealed to me somehow: square, triangle, circle. I imagined the right answer would slowly rise to the surface and be revealed, like pulling a smooth stone up from the bottom of a murky Minnesota lake. When staring didn’t work, I tried instantly responding the second my fingers touched the card, so that outside thoughts wouldn’t have a chance to hinder what I hoped was my hidden and budding seventh sense. That didn’t work either.
Despite the fact that our parents and teachers missed a huge opportunity for teaching Amber and me statistics, it was still clear that the experiment was a bust. No one person in class was any more talented for guessing shapes than any other. Our final project was nothing more than a large poster showing a bar graph of all my classmates’ names with each bar ending near the same place. There were no fascinating outliers. I don’t even remember what grade we got – that was so not the point.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one in the family interested in ESP. About twenty years later, in Tucson, the subject of my grandmother Naninou came up while Dad and I were hiking together through the Catalina foothills. Naninou always had a deck of cards in her hands, and it wasn’t always for solitaire.
She was actively trying to develop her ability to tell the future. She never gave up, but Dad told me that she once admitted that she didn’t have a strong “gift” for it. My dad’s gift is in pragmatic thinking. He’s a retired research microbiologist and professor, and well respected in his field. Even so, when I asked him what he thought of his mother’s obsession, he told me he didn’t know enough to dismiss the idea. He was open, although he didn’t offer any examples of Naninou’s successes.
The subject came up again two weeks ago when I went to visit my parents in Minnesota. Dad had an article he’d cut out from the July 1, 2014 issue of the Humanist Magazine. The article describes how Mark Twain, famously a skeptic, had a premonition of the death of his brother, and when the death happened exactly how he’d seen it in his dream, he became obsessed with the idea of precognition. Dad waved the article at me. “Scientists aren’t asking questions,” he said. “They’re not setting up the experiments. When they’re allowed to do so without getting laughed at, we’ll probably find out more.”
I’m two generations away from Naninou, and maybe that’s why I’m a little more hesitant to believe in fortunetelling than my dad. I’m also Naninou’s only granddaughter, and maybe that’s why I’m a little hopeful that if she did have some small talent, it got transferred to me. Is there a genetic predisposition for precogs along matriarchal lines? The romantic in me wishes this were true. The realist in me remembers my fifth grade failed experiment.
My grandmother died in the 1980s. Her deck rested on my dad’s desk afterwards, next to his University mug full of sharpened pencils and a photograph of my mother from the 1950s. When I was little, I used to look at the cards when dad wasn’t near, because when he was, he’d slap my hand to keep me from touching them. About eight years ago, he finally gave them to me. They’re an old Grand Jeu de Mlle. Lenormand deck – the strangest divination cards I’ve ever seen. I’m now keeping them on my own desk, because, like my dad, I’m not at all sure what else to do with them. But I think about them a lot.