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Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters by Janet Mason (Bella Books April 2012) is now available -- click here for more info

“There is something here for everyone who has ever loved someone else or plans to. I highly recommend “Tea Leaves” just because it is so real and so beautifully written.”–Reviews by Amos Lassen

check out Janet Mason's author blog

read Janet Mason's latest piece in The Huffington Post --Chick-fil-A: What Would Gandhi Do If He Were Gay? ('s) featured writer Sally Bellerose

Bio Sally Bellerose --In the past much of my writing involved themes of sexuality, illness, and class. I've been writing about my elderly parents lately and I find that the themes haven't changed much. The older I get the more interested I become in humor and absurdity. I have received various grants and fellowships including an NEA, The Barbara Deming Fiction Prize, and The Rick DeMartinis Award. My recently published work can be read in Rock and Sling, The Binnacle, The Journal of Humanistic Anthropology, The Boston Literary Magazine, Passager, Cutthroat, and Saint Ann's Review.

I have just finished an extensive revision of my novel, The Girls Club and am hoping this is the draft that will inspire a fine press to publish the book. The Girls Club, won first place in Writers at Work, has been excerpted in The Sun, The Best of Writers at Work, and The Quarterly Review, was a finalist for the James Jones Fellowship, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and the Bellwether Endowment. And most recently won the Rick DeMartinis Award for fiction. Chapter One, complete with sex, illness, class, and humor, can be read on the Web at

What if Your Spouse?

I'm ironing my Dad's Dickie work pants on an ironing board older than I am. The pants I'm pressing are a 'hang around the house' pair, creases white with age. Mom has taken in the seat so the back seam is four inches wide. I steam the seam flat.

Dad has two new bright blue pairs of Dickie work pants to wear to dialysis. They have twenty-eight inch waists. The no-nonsense fabric and the style haven't changed since I was a little girl fighting with my sisters for the honor of handing him his lunch pail.

I can't iron these pants without thinking of that lunch pail. It was a box really, steel and oblong with a dome lid to accommodate the thermos of hot coffee. He called the steel box a pail. He called the factory the mill. He called his pants Dickies. Mom bought Dad's new pants at WalMart. The store carries his size. I used to think about boycotting WalMart. My reasons were compelling. When push came to shove Dad's small waist and social security checks were more compelling.

I think about the dilemma of WalMart and Dad sits in his Lazy Boy with his feet up wearing a pair of dialysis Dickies. He's awake and watching me. Every so often he offers helpful ironing tips.
"That thing's touching the floor," he says. I've moved on from pants to white lace tablecloth.
"The floor's clean," I say.
"She won't like it." He means Mom.
"Honey. Get off the chair and come into the bathroom," Mom yells for the third time in five minutes. He ignores her. It's one of his good days. He's able to focus long enough to ignore her. With effort he could lower the leg rest of the Lazy Boy and, with the aid of his walker, shuttle the few yards to the bathroom. But he'd rather instruct my ironing.

Mom sticks her head out of the bathroom. "Honey," she says sharply. "We're going to be late."
"We?" He rolls his eyes and shifts around in the chair, making himself more comfortable. "She's making me take the van." He's talking about the PVTA ParaTransit van for the disabled. It took two months, a doctor's statement, four kids, and a couple nurses from the kidney place to convince Mom that she wasn't abandoning Dad by ordering the van service.
"She's an old lady," I say. "It's killing her to put you on that van."
"You take me," he says like he's hit upon the perfect solution. I've taken him before, all his kids have. He lowers the footrest with more force than either one of us thought he had left in him. The creak of the mechanism and slam that follows startles us both.
"No." I tend to my ironing so I don't have to look him in the eye. "You have to get used to it." I'm here as backup, in case he absolutely refuses to get on the van. In case he makes such a fuss that the driver refuses to take him.
"No?" He falls back in his chair, genuinely perplexed by my refusal. "I'm going to that place?" he says.
"To kidney dialysis, Dad. In the van." I fold the tablecloth and pick a flannel shirt out of the basket.
He frowns and looks around the room anxiously. "She doesn't love me anymore?"

My mouth is open to answer. I can field this question, no problem, but before I get a syllable out my mother sprints the thirty feet from the bathroom, and stands in front of him with her hands on her hips. "What did you say?" My father looks at me, more like we're siblings than father and daughter, more like he's done something wrong and now he's in for it, and wondering if there's any way I can help him out of it.

There isn't. He looks back at Mom.

"Listen, Buster." When she gets pissed my mother is scarier than you might think a 4'11" octogenarian could be.

She stands her ground, unwavering eyes narrowing in on him, her broad stance making her even shorter, concentrating her anger, a little bomb of old age. He'd be better off if her chin was quivering. "Listen to your daughter. I am a tired old lady. You think I like hiding in the bathroom? Making you get out of the chair alone because the therapist says that's what you have to do? Maybe you can't remember what the therapist says. Maybe sometimes you can't remember that your mother is dead. But don't you ever," she takes a step closer and leans on the arm of the Lazy Boy, "ever forget I love you. You are not that far- gone. Do you hear me?" She's loud and three inches from his good ear.

He nods his head yes.

"More than sixty years. You are not that far gone." She stands up straight and gives the bathroom a ferocious look. "Get up."

We all look at the bathroom. No one breathes until she steps back and sighs, "Get up, Honey."

I put down the iron and hold his left elbow to help him stand.

"Let him do it," she scolds, but her heart's not in it. She helps him to the bathroom.

I answer the phone. It's the doctor's office, my mother's doctor. She has troubles of her own. The bathroom door is open. I walk in. "Doctor's office, Mom." I nod in the direction of the kitchen and the phone. "I'll help Dad."
"Oh, no? I've missed my appointment?" Flustered, she steps out of the room, then steps back in. "Make sure he brushes his teeth." She raises her eyebrows, a specific movement with pursed lips and just the slightest flare of nostril, a mother to daughter communication learned in early children, passed from generation to generation. It means I am entrusting you with an important task. Don't screw up.

"Yes, ma'am." After she's out of the room, I salute her. Dad grins. I put toothpaste on his brush, bare my teeth and say, "Teeth."
"Teeth." He bares his teeth back at me and takes the brush.
A few minutes later, when she gets off the phone, Dad's with his toothbrush in the bathroom and I'm in the living room with the ironing board. She cocks an ear. "He's not brushing." She rushes to the bathroom.
I listen for a follow up.
Followed by three loooong seconds.

I make a dash for the bathroom. By my mother's reckoning, not only did I leave him alone, I am four seconds late in responding to her first, "Ohhhh." She gives me a quick flare of nostril.
Dad's head is cocked and attentive to what looks like a sheet of fabric softener balled in her fist. "What the hell is that?" He rotates his head, trying to decipher what she's holding.
Mom smells the sheet. "Clorox wipe." She nods at the box on top of the toilet tank and flaps the wipe at me. Smells like bleach, all right. "I think it was in his mouth."
"Did you put that in your mouth, Dad?"
"How the hell do I know?"

I draw a glass of warm water. His toothbrush sits on the back of the sink, the squiggle of paste intact. Mom puts her nose to his mouth and demands, "Breath out." He opens his mouth and his eyes wide. "Can't tell," she says.
"Do you taste bleach?"
"Maybe?" he shrugs.
"Rinse your mouth." I hand him the glass of water. "Don't swallow. Rinse and spit." He rinses his mouth three times and doesn't appear to swallow a drop. Then exhausted he sits on the side of the tub.

"Why would I do that?" He slumps and gives my mother a look that is the soul of discouragement. "How would you like to be an old bastard like that?" He puts his head in his hands. "What was I thinking?"
"You thought it was a tissue," my mother states, definitively. "On the way to blowing your nose, you got confused. We bothered you so much about your teeth. What was I thinking leaving a box of Clorox on top of the tank? Anyone would mistake it for Kleenex." She stashes the wipes under the sink, smiles at him, says, "There," to indicate the episode is over.

Dad raises his eyebrows. "The bleach got lost on its way to my nose?" He looks at Mom like she's crazy.
"You got lost on the way to your nose," she says.
"Oh." He ponders this. "Lost on the way to my nose." Then he laughs. Then she laughs and jiggles his walker. He hoists himself up with a grunt. "Did it," he says. Between Mom, me, toilet, tub, and walker, there's no room for him to take the two steps to the sink. "Let an old man brush his teeth." He shoos us out.
Mom packs an egg salad sandwich in a brown paper bag for him to take to dialysis. I iron. We listen to him brush. Problem resolved. But, he's not on the van yet.

"What if Your Spouse," Passager, edited by Mary Azrael and Kendra Kopelke, University of Baltimore, Issue #43, winter 2007.

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