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Tea Leaves
BOOK REVIEW Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Sally Parsons
2013-01-16

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by Janet Mason. $15.95; Bella Books; 202 pages

Perhaps it's the poet in Janet Mason that makes her writing so poignant and true. This is not a book of poems, but a memoir recounting the shared and individual memories of and about her mother and her grandmother—and Mason's memories of them. Much of it touches on the struggles these women faced in overcoming the constraints of growing up female in a working-class family in Philadelphia.

The main focus, though, is the painful process of witnessing and caring for her cancer-stricken mother as she moves inexorably closer to death. As they sit together, Mason and her mom explore their connection, their past, and what they mean to each other.

"[A]s the helper who was helpless, there was nothing I could do. I wanted my mother to live. My love for her was a profound selfishness." Mason fought the truth of the impending end of life, constantly on the lookout for cures. Then realization came: "If I could not accept my mother's death, could I truly embrace her life?"

There is much here that will resonate with a daughter—with anyone—who contemplates the final days of a parent and how to honor that relationship. There is wisdom in these pages that can provide insight and comfort.

Mason's grandmother, who worked in a textile mill as a spinner, joined a high Episcopalian church with a group of shop girls as a way of moving up in the world. As a divorced woman, she struggled to make a life for herself and her children. She welcomed offerings of charity—it meant she could keep her children—yet winced knowing she wasn't capable of taking care of her family solely on her own measure.

"All my grandmother—and my mother—wanted was for her daughter to have a better means of survival in the world," says Mason. As she points out, all three were, at heart, artists.

Mason's maternal forebears all read tea leaves and she returns to this custom throughout the book as a device to examine what newly captured memories mean to her. One day, as she stared into her tea cup, "… something magical began to happen," Mason writes. "The stories of my mother's childhood swirled around and converged with my own memories, and the cup became a kaleidoscope through which to reinterpret and reinvent the patterns."

Mason's relationship with her life partner, Barbara, was sorely tested by Mason's growing pre-occupation with her mother's illness. Mason would spend long stretches at her mother's bedside, leaving Barbara to fend for herself. Yet, deep down, she knew Barbara was still there for her.

Mason shares other family members with us—her mother's sister, who collected husbands, and her own father, who was dedicated to his ailing wife and clung to old work habits to get him through the day.

The description of caring for a dying parent, as Mason so beautifully lays down in these pages, slices through you like a sharp knife—clean and quick. It may also move you in profound ripples, perhaps thinking of your own relationships with your parents, as it did me.

Mason is an award-winning writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry whose literary commentary is regularly featured on This Way Out, an international LGBT radio syndicate based in Los Angeles. Her chapbooks of poetry include When I Was Straight (Insight To Riot Press) and a woman alone (Cycladic Press).


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