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Tea Leaves

by Janet Mason

The night of my breakup with my boyfriend I came into the house and slammed the door behind me. My mother called me into her room. I sat tentatively on the foot of her bed and tried to explain: "It's not just him, I've decided that I'm never going to get married."

My mother was angry, defensive, accusing me of rejecting her life, of not wanting to be like her, a housewife, something she was sure, with my college education almost at a close, I had grown to look down on. Agonizing, crying, feeling the wall soften inside me and begin to twist and tear, I told my mother I wasn't rejecting her life. Just because I was making other choices didn't mean I didn't respect hers.

She was right, of course. I didn't respect her and perhaps, in pushing off from my moorings, couldn't. She was everything I didn't want to be: a frustrated, angry housewife, a woman who had denied her artistic ambitions. I didn't yet understand that for her, a working-class woman, whose mother had been a mill worker and later in life a domestic, who herself had been an office worker (demoted, humiliated, in a job she had once gone to with pride and then left, angry, disappointed, grieving) being a housewife was a step up: a woman who cleaned her own house, the daughter of a mother who had cleaned someone else's.

Despite our closeness and our shared feminist views, it was extremely painful for me to tell her I was a lesbian a year and a half later. I called and told her I had something to tell her, and then broke down into sobs. It had been easy coming out to my childhood best friend, who had guessed before I told her, but my mother was different. I was making an announcement that I was vastly different from her, that I would not, in any way, shape, or form, have a life like hers. When I came out in the early 1980s most lesbians did not have children -- unless they were from previous marriages to men. And at that time, my coming out meant, in a very specific way -- past my declarations of never wanting to marry or have children -- that there would most likely be no grandchildren.

My mother paved the way for me to come out to her by writing me a letter. She knew I had been having difficulties on my job and wrote that she "would love me whether I was a writer, or a waitress, or... whatever." Later she told me that when I broke down on the phone she thought I was either gay or pregnant. When I invited my parents over to my apartment for dinner and told them I was a lesbian, she defused the tension by holding up her right hand and saying, "Is becoming a lesbian like being saved?"

"That's right, Mom," I told her, "that's exactly what it is."

I came out to my parents before I was with Barbara -- but she was the first lover who I introduced to my parents. In fact, falling in love with Barbara did save me. She was always able to make me laugh and, beyond that, she seemed to know me better than I did. Barbara saved me from many things -- most of all from myself.

But my mother first saw my lesbianism as a betrayal, defiantly different from her, as my father said, just one more way to buck the system. In time, though, she came to see it as a privilege. "And what college did she go to?" my mother asked slyly when I mentioned in passing another lesbian I worked with on a feminist collective. I mentioned a Seven Sisters College, caught in my own feelings about the slights passed to me from this woman, her father a lawyer, her background upper middle class. Her barbed comments -- Fishtown is nothing but white trash, she'd said, speaking of the neighborhood my father grew up in -- were ingrained enough in her psyche to be unconscious but that didn't stop them from sticking in my side like a thorn.

My mother's point, which she had to explain -- that being a lesbian was a privilege, handed out with diplomas and professional jobs -- was slow in coming to me, but finally I understood. Being a lesbian, like going to college, was an opportunity that was not afforded my mother. But it was worthy of consideration.

Soon after I had come out to her, I was telling her about a friend whose mother, on finding out her daughter was a lesbian, slapped the palm of her hand against her forehead and said, "Ooh! I think I'm a lesbian too!"

My mother tilted her head quizzically and said, "Do you think I'm..." -- then smacking the palm of her hand on her forehead -- "Ooh?"

By then she was well reconciled to the daughter being different from the mother.

My mother was not above using our differences for her own gain: namely to antagonize my father. "Keep reading," she said to me sternly, as I sat on the couch reading a passage aloud to them both from Sisterhood is Powerful. My father wanted me to go to a psychiatrist and get "fixed." My mother was working on him for me, trying to get him to understand what my life was about. I was reading a passage about lesbian-feminism and sex and had just put the book down for the second time out of embarrassment. "Go ahead. Your father needs to know these things."

My father was noncommittal, hiding behind what my mother calls his fish eye, his stare glassy and absent. Retreating inside himself was the only way to escape being outnumbered by his wife and daughter. My mother nudged me. "You read it or I will."

I picked the book up and continued, "Women together can keep it going longer than we can with any man." As I read, I drew into myself, shielding myself with the book. But I wasn't oblivious to my mother's bald-face snickering as she sat on the end of the couch and looked at my father.

"Watch yourself," she told him. "If you don't behave I'm going to run off with the lesbians."

Excerpt taken from Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012)

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