Mt. Airy author’s new memoir explores issues of LGBT children caring for aging parents
by Len Lear
Long-time Mt. Airy resident Janet Mason, 53, has just written a memoir, “Tea Leaves,” which her publisher, Bella Books, maintains is the first LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgendered) nonfiction book in over a decade to address directly the issues of caring for elderly parents.
“Out and Aging,” a 2006 report, found that 36 percent of LGBT Boomers are caring for aging parents. One significant reason why a higher percentage of gays care for aging parents than heterosexuals is that gays are less likely to have children of their own to care for, freeing them up to spend more time and resources on their own elderly parents.
“Tea Leaves” begins when the author’s mother, Jane, is diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer in 1993. A dutiful daughter, Mason proceeds to take care of her mother, 74, and enters a deeper understanding of her own life through her mother’s stories. Her grandmother (born in 1899) was a white glove-wearing lady of her generation, and Janet’s mother (born in 1920) was an office worker and feminist ahead of her time. The narrator has taken the foundation of her mother’s life and forged her own. “Tea Leaves” is a story of gender and class, identity and sexuality but, most of all, it is about love.
“Tea Leaves” also includes a backdrop of Philadelphia history including the textile mills in Kensington, where Mason’s grandmother worked as a spinner, and the Lighthouse in North Philadelphia, which in the 1920s was a charitable day program for the children of single mothers, most of whom worked in the textile mills.
“So many people,” said Janet last week, “regardless if they are gay or not, become the caretakers of their aging parents. In my own experience, I was an only child, so there were not any siblings to look to. But taking care of my mother was never a burden. It was simply the right thing to do – and I could never have imagined not doing it.”
Mason, who teaches creative writing at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, will also be reading this summer at Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy and at Mt. Airy Arts Garage.
“I have always been a writer,” said Mason. “It is almost as natural to me as breathing. As a child, I was always making up stories, and often I wrote them down. I think writers experience the world differently than other people; we escape into imagination and then come back and explore what intrigues and haunts us. We make sense of things by writing about them. This was very true in the writing of ‘Tea Leaves.’ I wrote about my mother’s final months and my experience in caring for her.”
In her 20s and 30s, Janet primarily wrote poetry. She was “discovered” by Insight To Riot Press, a publishing collective in Philadelphia, which published several slim volumes of her poetry. “I found that my poems were getting longer, and then I started writing short stories and just finished a novel that is set in the 1920s which is about my mother’s father, who abandoned his wife and two daughters (my mother and my aunt) when my mother was seven. I witnessed her pain at being abandoned by her father and always wondered about him – my grandfather. When I finished the last sentence, I realized that the writing of the novel had been, for me, an act of forgiveness.”
Mason grew up in Levittown, Pa., and graduated from Neshaminy Maple Point High School and Temple University as a journalism major. She has held many positions in communications and teaching. She worked for Jewish Educational and Vocational Services for five and a half years until last June and prior to that with the National Adoption Center for several years. She also taught creative writing at Temple University Center City for eight years until the fall of 2010, when the Continuing Education Program was discontinued. “Teaching has always been a sideline for me, but it is also the most rewarding work that I have done.”
Subconsciously, revealed the Mt. Airy author, she always knew that she was gay. As a child, she always felt different and was in many ways taking refuge in reading, music and her own inner world. “I ‘came out’ shortly after college – when I was 23,” she said. “I was living on my own in a studio apartment in Germantown and creating my life – as a lesbian and as a writer. It seems like the world has changed immensely since my early 20s. At the same time, I am always cautious about whom I open up to – especially in the workplace where you have something to lose.
“Yes, I have experienced discrimination in housing and in the workplace and also random violence on the street many years ago. The threat of violence was always there. In recent years, when I worked in Center City, I would see young women together holding hands on the street, and the sight of them always made me happy. It is true that we are living in a time of backlash and that many young gay people are having a very difficult time and still need our help.
“But it is also true that the world is a freer place than it used to be. I am working with PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapters across the country, promoting ‘Tea Leaves.’ PFLAG has been around since the 1970s. I was thinking back on the meetings I attended in Philadelphia when I first came out and how helpful the organization was to both my mother and father. It is common for parents to not want their children to be gay because they don’t want them to experience discrimination. But more harm can result by denying your true self. And I think that is something that transcends being gay.”
“Tea Leaves” has been getting rave reviews from critics. For example, prominent author and historian Karen S. Mittelman recent wrote that “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 our mothers’ 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.”
Mason has been with her partner, Barbara, for 29 years in Mt. Airy. (Barbara is also a character in “Tea Leaves.”) “I love Mt. Airy,” said Janet. “As a child I always wanted to live in a diverse community, surrounded by people who read books. Mt. Airy has long been known as a safe haven for lesbians, but the beauty of being gay and living here is that it does not matter. People socialize according to their interests – music or art, for instance. I was working in Center City full-time during the day and teaching at night and spending a lot of time on the commuter train for the past decade, and in the past year I have come to appreciate Mt. Airy more than ever. It is a beautiful place – the trees, the houses and yes, the people too – and a true community.”
“Tea Leaves” is available through bookstores (they can order it if they don’t have it in stock) or online through Amazon and the publisher’s site (Bella Books, http://www.bellabooks.com/9781594932786-prod.html) and other online bookstores as well. You can contact Janet Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org
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