Mt. Airy resident Janet Mason read from her latest book, Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, (Bella Books) and conducted a discussion and writing workshop Friday afternoon, September 7th, with the members of the Journey's Way writing group that meets every two weeks. Journey's Way, a program of Intercommunity Action, is a 55-plus community based on Rector Street in Roxborough, Philadelphia.
"I've taught people of all ages throughout the years," said Janet Mason, "and I've always recognized that the older students have the most interesting stories. The people in the Journey's Way writing group were mostly in their 70s -- they have lived long and interesting lives and they have important stories to tell. It was a real pleasure working with them.
Tea Leaves is about my experience taking care of my mother when she was terminally ill. She was misdiagnosed with arthritis and the HMO doctor she went to refused to give her a referral to a specialist. She then found a new doctor and was correctly diagnosed with fourth-stage cancer. Also, in Tea Leaves, I wrote about my grandmother, who was a spinner in a Kensington Philadelphia textile mill. It was a story that everyone could relate to and afterwards we had a very interesting discussion.
An excerpt from Tea Leaves about the author's grandmother (who worked in a textile mill in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 30s):
My mother and I both stared at the iron legged ottoman, covered with a faded tapestry that my grandmother wove more than a half century ago. Whenever I looked at the patterns of the ottoman, the faded edges and the lines of darker colors, I saw my grandmother.
My grandmother was a woman of great dignity. The Episcopal Church, especially after she had divorced and returned to the city, was one of the major pillars in her life. I don’t know that she was particularly religious. But I remember visiting Saint Simeon’s with her, and I could see the appeal of the church, especially to a poor woman who had little if any luxury in her life.
She might have been saying prayers that she no longer believed in as she sat there, her head bowed and covered, next to her two girls—my mother squirming in the aisle seat and my aunt sitting next to her daydreaming as she stared at the stained glass windows. The shiny brass organ pipes reached to the ceiling and looked as beautiful as they sound. The pews were polished mahogany, the wood smooth and cool. The scent of incense and flowers permeated the air. All St. Simeon’s needed was some red velvet seat cushions and gilded cherubs on the ceiling and it could have been easily transformed into the sensuous lair of an opera house or, perhaps, a bordello.
Sundays at St. Simeon’s were a respite from the rest of my grandmother’s life. Her days in the textile mill encompassed her like the full spectrum of shadow falling from a sundial. The morning light filtering through the small windows of the dark mill would have been diffuse.
Her hair would have been tied back into a bun as the light fell around her like the fiber of soft cotton. She would have bent over the heddles that kept the warp lines in place as she threaded the machine. The colors on the ottoman—rust red, dusty blue, olive green, black—would have filled the spindles that unraveled furiously into the automated looms as her hands kept pace. When the morning light turned into afternoon and the heat rose in rivulets of sweat dripping from her skin, my grandmother would have reminded herself that she was lucky to have a job. The soup lines were getting longer. The unemployed and the homeless were marching in the streets. Even if my grandmother didn’t know anyone who committed suicide, she would have read the listings in the daily papers.
I wondered what it was like for my grandmother, a woman with dreams and aspirations, a woman whose life dictated that her only option was to work in a mill or to clean someone else’s house, which was what she did after she left the mill. Did her dreams keep her going through the tedium of her life? Or did knowing that her dreams would never come true make her life close to unbearable? And if her life was unbearable, what kept her going? Had the thought of her girls having better lives than hers made it all worthwhile?
When my grandmother worked at the textile mill, she was a woman who was no longer young but not yet old. She still had her girlhood daydreams of her young adulthood as an escape from the pure tedium of her life. At the same time, the features of her face would have been hardening themselves into the lines of her future. Her lips may have opened easily in laughter, but they were on their way to becoming a stitch in the center of her face.
My mother told me that when she was a girl my grandmother would tell her stories about her own childhood. Her favorite stories were about the People’s Theater, where she would sit in the front row with her cousin Adelaide, each of them sucking on a dill pickle, drooling as they tried to catch the eye of the actors. One day the two of them, between nudges and giggles, caught the eye of Romeo and when he looked at the two girls, their lips puckered over their pickles, he flubbed his lines. “Good Goose” became “Goose Goose.”
Ethel and Adelaide played Fairy number one and Fairy number two in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” My grandmother’s lines —“Hail, hail!”—were less memorable than her dress, filmy chiffon, petals flowing down from her neckline. The dress may have belonged to the theater company, but as she stood on the stage, the dress—and the audience’s applause—belonged to her alone.
Her memories would have swirled through her mind as she stood sweltering in the textile mill, reloading the spools that needed to be filled faster than she could keep up. Her back might have been aching and her fingertips numb—she might have been wondering how she could afford to pay the rent—but in her dreams she was stately as a queen as she stood center stage. Her green chiffon dress was a waterfall cascading down her. Ladies in waiting stood behind her. A diamond tiara sat on her head, its sparks of light reflected in Romeo’s eyes. He knelt at her side, staring up at her, as rapt as the audience seated in its plush red velvet hall. Romeo reached his hand toward hers, then vanished.
Wherefore art thou, Romeo? The words dropped from her lips, the life that could have been, as the curtain descended in front of her.
Sitting in the living room with my mother, I could hear the distant applause, replaced suddenly by the din of the mill. The noise of the loom, the thud, the thwack, entwined with a ceaseless rhythmic tramp—the tread of hundreds and thousands marching through history.
Tea Leaves, published by Bella Books, is available in bookstores and online in book and eBook formats.
Janet Mason is reading as part of the Local Author Series (along with Guy Dunn and Jewelze) on Saturday September 15th – 1:00 pm at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Street (near the corner of Carpenter and Green) ( in the West Mount Airy section of) Philadelphia, PA 19119
and with Marie Kane and Susan Charkes at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center, Sunday, September 16th at 419 Green Lane (rear) Philadelphia, PA 19128 (open reading to follow). For more information, call 215-482-3363.
You can learn more about Tea Leaves here.