Author Janet Mason read from her latest book, Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, (Bella Books) at the Golden Slippery Author Series held at Adath Israel in Merion Station, PA.
“I’ve taught people of all ages throughout the years,” said Janet Mason, “and I’ve always recognized that the older students have the most interesting stories. The people who attended the author event have lived long and interesting lives and they have important stories to tell. It was an honor hearing their stories during the lively discussion we had.
Tea Leaves spans the lives of three generations of women. It is about my experience taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill. It is also includes my mother’s stories about my grandmother, a spinner in a Kensington Philadelphia textile mill, and a fair amount about my own life.
The following is an excerpt from Tea Leaves that I read at the Golden Slipper Author Series.
It was 1927, the latter years of the Roaring Twenties. My grandmother would have seen the cartoon images of the flapper, a woman with bobbed hair and a short skirt daringly showing her legs from the knees down. This was the image of the loose woman—heralded in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—that came to represent the decade. But this lifestyle existed for only a few—those who belonged to the class of the decadent rich, their excesses based on the skyrocketing stock market that would soon come tumbling down. For the majority of women, especially working-class women like my grandmother, it was still scandalous to be divorced.
With her children in tow, she moved back to the city where they stayed with an old church friend in the Germantown section, the neighborhood I later moved to—which at that point had become a haven for artists, political activists and lesbians—when I moved away from my parents’ home in the suburbs. It was evident from the disappointed look on my mother’s face, even now, more than a half century later, that regardless of the large house they stayed in she would have much rather been back in the country.
“Even the yard wasn’t anything compared to the country. It was just a patch of grass with a wrought iron fence around it. There was a birdbath with a wrought iron bench next it that was painted white. Who sat on a bench?” I looked at my mother—her scrunched-up face framed by her short hair—and I could see the ten-year-old staring out of her seventy-four-year-old face. “My favorite thing about that yard was the elm tree. It had low branches, as low as my favorite climbing tree in the country. It was the closest thing to home that I could find.”
She shifted painfully in her chair. “Eventually Mama found a job at the mill, and we rented a row home nearby in North Philadelphia. Our backyard was tiny, a small square yard with a cement walkway between two patches overgrown with grass and weeds. There wasn’t a tree anywhere in sight. We moved around a lot. Once or twice we only moved two blocks from where we had lived before. I always thought my mother was hiding us from our father. If he couldn’t find us then he couldn’t come and take my sister and me away.”
My mother held her shoulder and her eyes narrowed as she spoke. “I was a latchkey child. This was before the Lighthouse started a program for the older kids as well as the younger ones. The Episcopal women started the Lighthouse as a daycare and after-school program for the children of single mothers. Do you remember when I took you to the old neighborhood when you were ten?”
I nodded, remembering it well. A new hospital stood on the site of the old Lighthouse, off Lehigh Avenue, in the heart of North Philadelphia. When my mother was growing up, the neighborhood was full of European immigrants. Now it was a mostly Spanish-speaking section known as the Barrio. My mother’s stories of the Lighthouse captured my young imagination. I pictured an island jutting from the ocean, a tall cylindrical building with a pulsing light, an actual lighthouse. My memories of visiting her old neighborhood were full of exotic tastes and smells—arroz con pollo, plantains, the greasy sizzle of fried tortillas at the Spanish restaurant where we ate.
My mother sat gazing out the front window, looking far away into her own past, full of a different set of tastes and smells. “Before I started going to the Lighthouse with my sister, I came home from school earlier than my mother and had to let myself in with the key I kept on a string around my neck.
“One day I lost the key. That was the time I was homeless. I was out in the freezing cold for hours. It seemed like days before my mother came home from the mill. There was a storefront next to our house, and there was a light in the window so I went and stood in front of it. The store was closed but there was a woman inside. I could see her folding the linens, her outstretched arms looked like a cross draped with a purple sash at Lent.”
“Why didn’t the woman in the store let you in?” I asked. We had moved from the dining room into the living room, and my mother sat in her gold velour chair. The ottoman, covered with the textile my grandmother brought home from the mill, sat in front of her.
My mother gave me a look of pure astonishment. “In those days children were to be seen and not heard. All my life I’ve been in the wrong place at the wrong time. First children weren’t listened to. Then when I was grown, Benjamin Spock came around and said parents should shut up and listen to their children.” My mother’s words were deliberate, not angry; precise, rather than resentful. As she spoke, I saw a skinny seven-year-old in a frayed cloth coat, shivering as she waited the long hours for her mother, her teeth chattering as she stood in the doorway.
“Usually, I would take Mama’s dinner to the mill. We had ice boxes in those days—every morning the ice man would come with a block of ice and by the end of the day the ice melted down into the tray. I still remember the drops of water beading up inside the wax paper that covered the pound cake. In those days we didn’t think about what a healthy dinner was. So we had cake, not for dessert but for the main course. No wonder my mother became a diabetic. I passed by all the factories and red brick warehouses along the way. You’d never know it was the same neighborhood today with all those vacant run-down warehouses and factories everywhere. I still know the names of the lace they displayed in a store window on the corner: Italian Milanese, French Chantilly, English Honiton, Bedfordshire, Antwerp, Point de Lille.”
My mother’s story entered my imagination and I saw her as an observant child, turning the corner to where the textile mill loomed in front of her, four stories of red brick. She would have passed the night watchman who greeted her by name, to enter the back door into the clanking, whirring factory, which like a large hungry animal blew its hot breath on her neck. As she scurried down the familiar hallway toward the cafeteria, the familiar gray walls weighed down on her as heavy as the flabby arm of an old woman.
Tea Leaves, published by Bella Books, is available in bookstores and online in book and eBook formats.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves here. ( https://tealeavesamemoir.wordpress.com/tea-leaves-in-the-news/ )