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Tea Leaves (Bella Books), by Janet Mason, is a memoir that offers the reader an intimate record of three generations of women in a working class Pennsylvania town. Moving back and forth across generations, Mason traces the paths of a grandmother, a mother and a daughter in a moving and poignant account of the lives of women. Education, class distinctions, and occupations are pivotal in this portrait of the evolution of choice as depicted in one family. Tea Leaves tells the story of a daughter coming to jarring, painful grips with her mother’s (Jane) impending death, and the burgeoning conviction that, in spite of their differences, they are not strangers.
The political and pre-feminist climate, the unsafe working conditions of the factories where Mason’s grandmother toiled, combine with the frustrated artist inside her mother and the rebelliousness of young Janet herself as searing reminders of the necessity of action both by and for the rights of women. Each woman worked a factory floor in Philadelphia, but Janet’s mother convinced her to enroll in a community college, changing her direction toward highly-valued “white collar jobs.” The effects of time, class, and place on each of these women is life-altering, as Janet’s mother explains to her with stark simplicity:
“When your grandmother was a girl, she worked in a candy factory,”my mother said, slowly and carefully.
I remembered that this was not the first time she had told me this.
“What did she want to do?”
My mother looked at me as if I were insane.
“No one asked her what she wanted to do. She just went out and
Mason finds a way to store up memories as time with her mother grows short. In spite of their daily proximity, Janet cannot bring herself to tell her mother how valued she is until the very end, which she admits in her closing soliloquy. Her journey with her mother exposes her similarities in temperament to the women she has sprung from, leading her away from the love and support of her own partner in the process. The effects of Jane’s illness, and death, on Janet and her partner could have been explored more deeply, without shifting the focus away from the central relationship between Janet and her mother.
It is the detailed richness of the mother-daughter bond that are the most powerful and affecting parts of the book—Jane was never one to mince words, and could burn Bibles while letting the F-word fly. She was proud to let her daughter know, after years of marriage and political activism, that she thought she could easily have been a lesbian. I would have liked her, I feel sure—although she would probably have found me too wishy-washy for her tastes! Caring for, feeding, washing, chanting, singing—Mason guides, and is guided by her mother to their inevitable separation.
The title references the disdain for superstition Janet’s mother held, while underscoring the tenuous nature of the future, where no predictions can prepare us adequately for grief.
Who do you remember, who have you loved, who were you raised by? There are thousands of astonishing women who may never have so much as a magazine article, much less a book, written about their lives. Mason has given us a gift: the opportunity to look into her matrilineal memories, and to take a moment to look into a mirror, and remember the women who gave both our faces and our characters their shape.
by Janet Mason
Paperback, 9781594932786, 208 pp.