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Great-Grandma’s Sixth Sense

By: Steve Fleming - May 26, 2014

The way my family described my great grandma was that she was very clean, very shy, and very superstitious. The superstitious characterization is the one I heard the most; my mom once used Great Grandma in an attempt to contextualize Joseph Smith’s “magical” practices–everyone was doing it. So I was surprised and interested to get a little more context for Great-Grandma’s beliefs when my grandma read a history of her mother (Great Grandma) to us last year (this was just a few months before my grandma passed away).

The entry said,

She was blessed, or some might say cursed with a sixth sense, now called E.S.P. She awoke one night and said that something told her to pray for her mother. She later discovered that it had happened about the same time that her mother died. While she was living in Junction, her brother Raymond came for a visit, but she had a premonition that her other brother Lawrence was also coming. When Raymond arrived, he tried to surprise her and at first pretend that he was the only visitor, but she walked past him to the door and said, “come in, Lawrence”. She hadn’t seen Lawrence for years, but she knew he was there. She had told her husband that morning that Lawrence was coming. It seems, they never could surprise her.

She knew when James [her son] had torn his trousers as a child. Years later, when he was out with his friends or courting the girls, she knew when he would be home and would turn on the light as he approached the house.

This was followed by a description of her superstition.

She was very superstitious. She would not have a Wandering Jew plant in the house; she believed that it brought bad luck. She should not allow a hat on her bed nor allow a tiny baby to look in a mirror for the same reason. Spilling salt had to be followed by throwing some of the spilled salt over the left shoulder and she wouldn’t allow an open umbrella in the house. She had fun reading fortunes in tea leaves for family members.

There are several interesting things about this passage. First is the fact that until Grandma’s reading of this history, I had never heard about Great-Grandma’s sixth sense. I had always simply been told that she was superstitious; no one had ever said that she had supernatural abilities that anybody saw as legitimate.

Second is the juxtaposition: Great-Grandma’s sixth sense is presented as a real supernatural ability, but her rituals and beliefs are called superstition, which is pretty much always used as a term of derision and seems to be used that way here. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Great Grandma would have viewed her abilities and her rituals as part of the same worldview but her daughter divided them.

These story addresses the issue of how do we remember our past: in this case our family history. One more important factor is the fact that even though her father and mother were children of Mormon pioneers, they did not raise Great Grandma or any of her other children in the church even though they all lived their whole lives in Utah. Great Grandma married a non-Mormon and had no involvement with the church; she had none of her children baptized, though she too lived her whole life in Utah. My grandma got baptized in her late teens but was only nominally involved in the church; my grandpa, though the son of a stake president, was totally uninvolved in the church. But my grandparents, who lived their married lives in Provo, sent their children to church, and it really stuck with my mom. Anyway, as stories about Great Grandma were told to me by my very Mormon mother and my nominally Mormon grandmother, it’s interesting how the story was told. Would my mother have embraced Great Grandma’s sixth sense as a spiritual gift if Great Grandma had been a practicing Mormon? Would she have if Great Grandma didn’t have Mormon ancestors; if Great Grandma “didn’t have the full light of the gospel” as Mormons sometimes refer to non-Mormons, instead of having pioneer ancestry and having lived her whole life in Utah. How do we view the spiritual gifts of these family members who occupy a seemingly liminal space with regards to the church? How did Grandma view all of this: her superstitious mother with ESP?

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7 Comments

  1. This is great. I fits nicely with a thing I’m writing on “magic.” Perhaps similarly, when I was talking to my Mom about it, she immediately mentioned two women in Ephraim Utah, where she grew up, who told “fortunes” (more accurately, they prophesied about various things).

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 26, 2014 @ 11:42 am

  2. Nice, Steve. Thx.

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 26, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

  3. Steve, This is interesting. There are also stories about my great-grandmother (Presbyterian, on my non-Mormon side) being “gifted” and reading tea leaves. It would be interesting to compare the stories that come out of Utah and Idaho with the rest of the U.S. In my family, it has always been explained as something that is inherited – so my grandfather, mother, and weirdly, 10 year old nephew are often identified as having special connections to the spirit world.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 27, 2014 @ 5:12 am

  4. Thanks, Steve. My grandmother and great grandmother are also described as having sixth senses or finely tuned spiritual gifts. I wonder if there’s a common denominator in the time period.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 27, 2014 @ 8:16 am

  5. Amanda, notions of inherited gifts is the more traditional folk religious way of viewing these abilities, but contemporary Mormons tend to view them as a general gift of the Holy Ghost that some are better at tapping into than others. But again, the way that my mom talked about my great grandma was that she was simply superstitious. I’m curious how other families “remember” their “gifted” ancestors.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 27, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  6. That is interesting, Amanda. I don’t know if it is related, but in the broader Atlantic traditions, gifts like these are often passed between sexes in each generation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 27, 2014 @ 10:01 am

  7. Jonathan, That’s possible. My great-grandmother was of Scots-Irish extraction but her family had been in the U.S. since the mid-19th C (she was born in 1899-ish).

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 27, 2014 @ 10:52 am