Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters was inspired by those pictured above (second from right) my great grandmother Martha Washington Gadsby, (left) my grandmother Ethelind Elizabeth Gadsby (later Wood and then Bell) and (far right) my mother (Sarah) Jane Mason, and my father, Albert Mason.

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Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters is multi-layered and has a backdrop in the U.S. labor movement. The narrator's grandmother was a spinner in a textile factory, the mother an office worker, and the narrator, the first to be graduated from college, tells their story as well as her own.

This excerpt was published in The Advocate. To read other sections, click here.

Mothering Mom

From a new book

In the anthology Mom (Alyson Publications), lesbians write candidly about the experience of loving, leaving, and sometimes losing their mothers. In this excerpt, Janet Mason captures the sudden understanding between a caretaking daughter and a mother nearing death.

By Janet Mason

Despite the changes in her diet, my mother's condition is worse every time I see her. She is literally shrinking before my eyes. The pain is moving around from her sternum to her thighs. Each time she winces, I wince; each time her eyes fill with tears, so do mine.

She is constantly talking about leaving. I listen, respond, tell her not to worry. But even as I listen to her talking about her life, acknoweldging that the final chapter is coming to a close, I still cling to the stubborn belief that a miracle could happen: My mother could live.

Her brows knitted, lips pressed together in a firm resolve, she leans forward, grasping the rounded end of her wooden cane. She uses its straight end with the rubber stopper to retrieve first one sneaker and then the other.

Every muscle in my body twitches in her direction. I check my urge to get her sneakers for her. Suddenly she is the child and I am the mother. I need to let her do this for herself, to not hover anxiously. She let me go. Now it is my turn.

She holds back the tongue of her gray-and-white running sneaker with her cane, slips her right foot into the shoe. Before she starts with the second sneaker, she looks up, a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes. "I always thought," she says in a thoughtful far away voice that sounds as if she is talking as much to herself as to me, "that I could've been a lesbian."

I look up, startled.

"You remember my friend Mary from the organic gardening club. I think we would have been lesbians if we'd had the chance. One day she asked me if I liked sex. I think if it had been another time, we would've just done it.

What's the big deal about sex? America is so puritannical. I think that's why the big fuss about gay rights."

Her eyes narrow down to the pinpoint of a precise memory. "Now Vera, the woman who was in my nursing program, she was something special." She is looking past me, far into the distance. "She had nice broad shoulders like your father. And boy, was she interesting to talk to! She walked like a man, her feet pointing to the outside. She didn't pretend to be anything she wasn't, so everyone knew she was a lesbian."

"None of the other women wanted to have anything to do with her, even the other black women. But I liked her. When she put her hand on my knee, I didn't say anything. I just pushed her hand away like I would do to a man."

I have heard this story before, but my mother's reminiscence brings Vera into sharper focus for me, the broad shouldered black lesbian, this woman ahead of ther time who could risk breaking all taboos and place her hand on the knee of a straight white married woman who was pregnant with her first and only child.

I imagine myself in my mother's womb, curled up tight, growing larger in the amniotic fluid that transmitted the touch of Vera's hand on my mother's knee, perhaps feeling a flutter of excitement in the womb, then the light brush of my mother's arm across her stomach, sweeping away Vera's hand, keeping all that she was expected to be in place. It's quite possible that in in 1959, the desire that was dormant or repressed in my mother was handed to me, a gift embedded in the vibrational frequency that formed me.

The Advocate, May 12, 1998