Posts Tagged ‘mothers and daughters’

How Caring for My Mother Brought Me Into the LGBT Caretaker Club: A SAGE Experience

read the entire piece in The Huffington Post

When my mother became terminally ill, I went home to take care of her without a second thought. I worked as a freelancer at the time, so my work life was portable. As an only child I had no siblings to turn to (or to fight with or resent later). The fact that I am a lesbian was never an issue with my parents.

If anything, having to “come out” only made us closer. In my early 20s I was suddenly in a situation where my parents and I had to work through my declarations of being a lesbian and everything that meant in the early 1980s. I come from a background — working-class (no complaints) and British (stiff upper lip) — where we rarely expressed our feelings. In many ways my coming out as a lesbian was an extension of my mother’s feminist politics. (When I told them I had something to tell them, her guess was that I was either gay or pregnant.) My father did struggle temporarily with the fact that I am a lesbian, but after I came out to my parents, he told me for the first time that he loved me.

However, as a lesbian caretaker of my terminally ill and elderly mother, I became part of a trend that I came to consider after writing Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters, recently published by Bella Books.

Out and Aging,” a 2006 report, found that 36 percent of LGBT boomers are caring for aging parents. One significant reason that a higher percentage of us care for aging parents than heterosexuals is that we are less likely to have children to care for. Even when we are partnered, we are often perceived as “not having families.” This was not the case with me — both of my parents loved and accepted my partner. My mother left a letter to be read after her death, entitled, “A letter to my unexpected daughter-in-law, Barbara.”

It could very well be that people in the LGBT community (which crosses the spectrum of ethnicity, culture, and class) inhabit the role of caregiver in a spiritual sense (much as gays, lesbians, and transgender people inhabited the role of the two-spirit or “berdache” in many Native-American cultures).

It is true that there is a youth culture in the LGBT community (reflected in the gay media and consumer culture), but at the same time we inhabit the role of the “outsider” in society and may perceive the wisdom of elders — both family members and our friends who have become family — as important.

read the entire piece in The Huffington Post

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Health Reform, The Supreme Court And What I Learned From My Mother

read the entire piece in The Huffington Post

As the Affordable Care Act worked its way through the courts in the past three years, I began to reflect on how it might have affected my own life and that of my mother, who died of cancer in 1994. After much deliberation, the Supreme Court just ruled that the Act is constitutional.

Like most people, I, too, was confused about the Act but I knew that it would benefit me along with millions of others. People like me and my mother need a health care system we can believe in — something better than what was in place.

The medical system is mostly a profit-making structure that overlooks the most vulnerable sectors of our society — especially older women.

I was a witness to this when my mother was dying from fourth-stage cancer that had metastasized to her bones. She initially became aware of the cancer when she woke up with a crushing pain in her sternum. Her doctor at a health maintenance organization (HMO) diagnosed her with arthritis and suggested she take extra strength Tylenol. He refused to give a referral to a specialist.

It’s often said that women become invisible after the age of 45. We also become invisible to the medical system. Older women are more likely to have complicated medical issues and are more likely to be low-income, having spent fewer years in the workforce because of raising children and caretaking elderly parents.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has already been helping the elderly population. As of January 2011, Medicare has been providing no-cost screenings for cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases. At the same time, the Affordable Care Act established a new Center for Medicare & Medicaid innovation that tests better ways of delivering care to patients.

These two provisions alone are evidence that the healthcare reform has begun to improve the medical system — both in terms of preventive treatment and in research. Medical treatment is likely to become less fragmented (and profit-driven) and more transparent. As a result, people will get better treatment and are less likely to fall through the cracks.

If ObamaCare had been in place in 1994, the year my mother died, it may have made a difference. However, my mother also needed the one thing that cannot be legislated: trust. Her experiences as a nurse, as a working-class person and as a woman taught her not to trust the medical system. In many ways, this distrust was generational. My grandmother, at the end of her life, had several heart attacks and was hospitalized in a nearby inner-city teaching hospital. When my mother went to visit, she found interns prepping her mother for a gynecological exam. She stopped them; my grandmother, who was 77 years old, died a few days later.

read the entire piece in The Huffington Post

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This past week, I was honored to read at The SAGE Center’s first annual Pride luncheon in New York.  My partner and I met an old friend at the Center, who had organized the first book club with SAGE (Senior Advovacy in a GLBT Environment) when it was part of the New York LGBT Community Center on 13th Street.The SAGE Center lobby sign

Last January, The SAGE Center established itself as the first full-time LGBT senior center last January in its new home on Seventh Avenue.  The SAGE Center is funded partially through the New York City Department of Aging. Currently The SAGE Center has 650 members and is planning to open centers in the New York boroughs.

I read from my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, which provoked a lively discussion where SAGE members talked about their own experiences as caretakers of elderly parents and friends. One man talked about his experiences visiting an older friend who was attracted to him. “We would sing together and dance,” he said, “and whenever we danced, he grabbed my ass.  I was very firm in telling him that wasn’t happening.”  Some years passed and the older man, who now had dementia, was living in a home.  One of his relatives asked the man if he would visit the older man.  “I went and he didn’t know who I was but he asked me if I was there to have sex with him. When I said “no”  he asked me to leave. I had to explain that I was there to visit him.”

” Whenever we danced, he grabbed my ass.  I was very firm in telling him that wasn’t happening.”

A woman in the audience talked about how caring for her elderly father and his grief at losing him changed her (now former) partner.  In Tea Leaves, (under the editorial direction of Kathrine V. Forrest), I wrote about the tensions  that arose in my own long-term relationship as a result of me spending so much time and emotional energy caring for my mother.  It’s quite common.   When I talk to other couples where one or both has cared for an elderly parent, they frequently mention that there were tensions in their relationship.  It’s important to acknowledge that we’re not in this alone.

Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (pubished by Bella Books)

Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters is available from Bella Books — online– http://www.bellabooks.com/9781594932786-prod.html — or from your local bookstore.

The need for The SAGE Center as a place where LGBT seniors can gather with each other, engage in activities, and avoid isolation is illustrated by a conversation that I had with one of the participants.  While there are elders in the community who have led the way and who have always been out, many LGBT seniors are, in fact, not out. Even after retirement, many seniors are not out to friends and family members including grandchildren. While this is sad, it is a fact of their lives.  There is much documented evidence of LGBT seniors facing discrimination and ostracism when they socialize and live in conventional (non-LGBT)senior settings.One SAGE participant told me that he was out to very few people in his life.  “I have a friend is Israel who knows,” he told me, “And when he e-mails me with gay subject matter, he uses a different e-mail account.”

Janet Mason, author of Tea Leaves, a memoir of LGBT eldercare (Bella Books) with Scott French , program manager, with The SAGE Center in Chelsea ( 305 Seventh Ave)

Janet Mason, author of Tea Leaves, a memoir of LGBT eldercare (Bella Books) with Scott French , program manager, with The SAGE Center in Chelsea ( 305 Seventh Ave)

After the reading and discussion, I conducted a short writing workshop.  Several of the participants shared their work – one man wrote about reconnecting with his father who he had not seen since he was a child and is now eighty eight.  Another wrote about surviving his partner and feeling as if they are still connected spiritually.

The SAGE Center on Seventh Avenue in New York -- Barbara in the lobby

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Haddon Ave in Collingswood -- dog riding a rainbow-spoked bicycle outside of pet storeThe front of the Collingswood Library taken from Haddon Ave

It was a pleasure reading from Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books) last night at the Collingswood Library
with the Collingswood NJ chapter of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).  The group was delightfully intergenerational and after the reading I gave a short writing
workshop and members of the chapter wrote about the “defining moments” of their lives. Afterwards, some of the participants read their
defining moments — their turning points and transitions in life both good experiences and bad.

One man remembered feeling more attracted to Romeo while his classmates were talking about Juliet’s breasts.  A teen in the group wrote about being committed to a mental instition after coming out to his father.  A woman with grown children wrote about her divorce and how that led her to new interests in life. Their writings were truly moving and I hope to be able to share them with you. 

Our stories can truly change the world.

The Collingswood Library -- sign on the front says library is 100 years old

The anti-gay hate crime/bullying case of the Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi had just been decided and when I first arrived
there was talk about the sentencing of Dharun Ravi (who video taped on his roommate having sex with another man and then posted the
video to the Internet).  Ravi received a 30 day jail sentence.  He also received a three year probationary period and he was ordered to
pay a $10,000 finde toward a program to help victims of hate crimes. The last part of the sentence, seems to me to be an implication
of guilt.  It seems to me that Ravi received a slap on the wrist for this high profile hate crime, which his attorney called a “bias” crime.

What do you think?

Janet Mason reading from Tea Leaves at the Collingswood Library in NJ

Janet Mason signs a copy of Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters

Janet Mason signs a copy of Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters at the Collingswood Library in New Jersey

Haddon Ave in Collingswood NJ near the Collingswood Libary where Janet Mason was reading from Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

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Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, is now available from Bella Books.  You can order it online or through your local bookstore.Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters from Bella Books  cover image has photo of Jane Mason, age 10, taken in 1929.

Since its publication, I have been talking to people from all walks of life who have had similar experiences in taking care of their mothers.  Reading Tea Leaves is helping them remember their own mothers and  their own experiences

Margaret, 87, a woman who I met at a senior center, told me about losing her own mother when she was 10.  Her mother was from Ireland and had 7 children.  Margaret has spent her life working —  for many years she was a data entry operator for the rail roads.

My friend Jim wrote to me that Tea Leaves brought back memories of his mother ” on the eve of what would’ve been her 89th birthday. Have had that thought you expressed, that I wish she had survived in whatever form, that I would take what I could get. She had other plans, however. ..she had them turn off the respirator & turn on the morphine drip. This decisiveness, a quality I admire, spared her much pain & futility. She was thinking of herself, after so much time spent thinking of others.”

Just this afternoon, I talked to a reporter from Milestones newspaper, in Philadelphia, who had the same experience as me taking care of her mother who died from pancreatic cancer.

Suddently, I feel like a cultural worker, forging connections with others.

During Pride week in NY, I am reading at the New York SAGE Center.  The Center, which was opened in the Chelsea section of New York in January of 2012, is the first full -time senior center serving the LGBT community.  And in late May, I am meeting with the members of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in Collingswood, NJ.

During my travels, I was on a wonderful panel at the Equality Forum and was interviewed by a WHYY NewsWorks reporter:


I was also profiled in the Chestnut Hill Local by reporter Len Lear:


Janet Mason, a second generation feminist, intimately explores the paradoxical legacies of family and culture. Any woman who has borne witness to the passing of her mother will be moved by this account and any woman who has yet to face this life-changing transition will be illuminated and directed, as if by a map.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     —Sheila Ortiz Taylor

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Janet Mason, a second generation feminist, intimately explores the paradoxical legacies of family and culture. Any woman who has borne witness to the passing of her mother will be moved by this account and any woman who has yet to face this life-changing transition will be illuminated and directed, as if by a map.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     —Sheila Ortiz Taylor

My memoir, Tea Leaves, was recently published by Bella Books. The book is about my life, my relationship with my mother, and how that deepened when I was taking care of her in the final stages of her life.  My grandmother was a spinner in a textile mill in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and the book is layered with family stories — looking at love, the process of dying and of impending loss, and a look at how we are shaped by the relationship that formed us.

Tea Leaves  is a heartbreaking story of loss and at the same time a fierce and jubilant tribute. It reminds us of the way as daughters our accomplishments are always entangled in ourTea Leaves, a memoir by Janet Mason, cover mother’s disappointed dreams. As Janet Mason reveals the legacy of frustration, shame and rage that passed like an unspoken heirloom through generations of her working-class family, she also uncovers a stubborn, bright hope, and a keen sense of injustice, that are equally her inheritance. This vivid and moving memoir leaves us knowing that Mason’s dialogue with her mother will go on forever and will continue to transform her, in the way we are all continually in onversation – painful and liberating – with the past.

– Karen S. Mittelman, author/historian

I would like to use this blog to dialogue about the relationships of mothers and daughters, to talk about loss and the grieving process and how it shapes us, and to bring you the words of other writers who deal with similar themes.

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