What Makes You Grateful?

As a writer for children, I am used to having a new character’s voice come to me at any time of the day or night. I may be dreaming or driving. Bathing or taking a walk. Sometimes, I am working at the toy store, where a conversation with a young child can easily spark an idea.

But never has a project spoken to me, at least in the way that the Look For the Good Project has. It started with a newspaper article I read in our local paper. I recognized the photo of Anne Kubitsky, who I met this past May when we were both honored with a 2011 New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Award. She was the winner in the illustrated picture book category. What a treat to hear her voice read Graycie’s Catch. And what an honor to see her accompanying illustrations. Anne captivated the audience with her heartfelt illustrations, and her obvious love for kindness. (I have always had a soft spot for whales.)

I cut out the article and posted it near my desk. With Christmas approaching, I hurried to finish photo projects for my girls’ gifts. My time was limited; I was behind in everything. Yet, I could not stop thinking about Anne and the whale and her vision for a community art project that would become part of a traveling exhibit, featuring postcards from all over the world in which people of all ages state what makes them grateful.

My father would have loved this project and perhaps this is why the idea of it tugged at my heart. Even in pain, he would always stop to be thankful: thankful for the clouds, the comical behavior of a tiny chipmunk, the love of his family, the opportunity to speak to a grandchild or his great-granddaughter, and the ability to express himself through his writing. My father always appreciated the warmth of another’s hand, a stranger’s smile and compassion. A clean pair of sheets. Socks on his cold feet. His thinning hair being brushed. A small window so he could watch the birds outside.

The more I thought about Anne’s vision, the more grateful I was for my family, especially while I poured over photos at CVS, waiting behind a woman who had left her coupons in the car. I told her there was no need to apologize, even though it was nearly midnight and I had worked for ten hours at the toy store. She went to her car for her coupons and her bonus bucks, and when the total was finally tallied, she needed to spend 98 cents more to be able to use her CVS bucks.

“I am so sorry to hold you up,” she said.

“Relax, take your time,” I told her, studying a photo of my youngest dressed as Santa at the age of six months. (I had taped cotton balls to a bib to use as a beard.)

“Just buy some candy,” said the clerk.

“I don’t eat candy, though my dad does, but only one kind.” The woman perused the candy selection, not finding what she was after. She became flustered and then . . .

“Perfect! I found it.” She held a bag of Skittles in her hand.

My father’s favorite candy.

I believe his spirit is out there, watching over his family, nudging us when we need that extra push, and especially while our family struggled to get through our first Christmas without him.

This encounter was my father nudging me.

He would have been so grateful for that bag of Skittles, and so I contacted Anne to see how I could help with the project, because I believe in her message: the importance of reflecting on what is good.

My father taught me this, and I am forever grateful for his lessons. Every day I follow his example and find beauty in this world. Beauty that makes me stop whatever I am doing to wonder, and to be thankful for the smallest of miracles: the extraordinary within the ordinary. In this post, as with others, I share some of my photos, including the grateful postcards sent by my five-year-old granddaughter.

What about you, what makes you grateful? Ask yourself, ask your children, ask your friends. Ask a stranger. Spread the word and send a postcard. Send two. Write something. Draw something. Reflect on what is good. As Anne likes to say, “You are invited to write/ paint/ draw a glimmer of gladness on a postcard.”

The project’s link is www.lookforthegoodproject.org. There you will see a sample of many of the inspirational cards being received. Press links are included here: www.lookforthegoodproject.org/about

Postcards are needed by the 15th of January, though any received after that will become part of the exhibit. (You can mail multiple cards in one envelope to save individual postage). The premier show will be held in New London, CT on January 28th  at the Custom House Maritime Museum. I hope to see you there!

I have a template for three postcards per sheet that you can print on cardstock and cut up. Let me know if you would like a copy emailed to you. I always keep a handful in my purse to share as needed.

Happy New Year to all, and may you find what makes you grateful in this world. Be thankful. Peace.

P. S. – Dad, I miss you. Love you always, Betsy







Good News and A Promise to My Father

The past few weeks have been crazy for me. I spent another week in NC, tending to my parents; I returned home to find over forty manuscripts waiting in my pile of mail to be sorted and distributed to the proper agent or editor; and I had a slew of NJ SCBWI raffle donation emails to respond to.

I also held a secret—a secret I had learned two days prior in the presence of my father.


After an afternoon of doctor appointments, my father sat in his wheelchair in the living room. As tired as he was, we needed to discuss his wishes. The topic: when parents age, what becomes most important is quality of life, not quantity.

“I want to write and spend time talking to and being with my family,” he said. “That’s all. No more hospitals.”

“Okay, dad. No more hospitals,” I said, knowing what that meant. Yet, I understood his deep desire to write, and his need to feel up to doing so.

He, in turn, understood my mixed feelings about his decision. Instead of taking a much-needed nap, he wanted to help me. (At that moment, I knew why I am the way I am.) I am proud to say I am my father’s daughter.

Even in pain he reaches out to us. He supports my writing and relishes in my small successes. Every day, his attitude inspires me. Recognizing my struggle with his decision, he began to tell me his wonderful stories. He talked. I listened and laughed, while arranging books in the living room. (I had just purchased two tall wooden bookcases for the apartment.)

I want my father to get better, but he needs to be able to write. Just as I need to write. Like I need to breathe, eat, and sleep. This is when we are at our happiest.

I am certain the seed for this desire came early in my life, planted by my father—a lifetime writer, and my mother—a lifetime reader who studied children’s literature at Bank Street.

Looking over at him, I thought about this, when my cell phone rang. I had won the 2011 New Voices in Children’s Literature Tassy Walden Award—middle grade category. My entry: Savannah’s Mountain.

My dad stopped telling his stories. He sat in his wheelchair and listened to me. He listened to me be astounded and humbled.  He listened to me cry.

Being in his presence when I received the news is a moment I will cherish forever.

After I shared the secret phone call with him, he asked how my writing was going.


I can’t write right now. I have to take care of you and mom. There is too much going on.”

“Then do something else creative to fuel your writing. To help you relax.”

“Okay, dad, I’ll go outside and take more pictures—only if you promise to rest.”

He stared at me in the way that lets me know he is thinking, so I waited until the words came. “The ability to write is a gift, never to be taken lightly.”

“I know, Dad, and I don’t.”

“You must love the gift. You must care for the gift. But most importantly, you must feed the gift.”

“Feed the gift? Is this another ploy to get more Skittles?”

“No, I have some left, but if you’re going out later . . .” He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a package of his favorite candy. After eating one piece, he continued. “You feed the gift by writing as much as you can. Wherever you can, even when life throws hardballs at you, one after another.”

“Like now?” I asked.

“Exactly like now. Life will always throw challenges at you, and there will be times when the world seems ruthless and unforgivable, but you can’t let that stop you from doing something you love. You have to make yourself a promise.”


Savannah’s Mountain involves promises, and the need to keep and honor a promise. So it seems fitting that before my dad headed for a nap, he asked something of me. “Promise me you will keep writing, even when I’m gone.”

I can’t imagine a world without him, without being able to pick up a phone to call him, or see and talk to him on Skype. A world without his humor and Skittle seeking schemes is a world I don’t want to imagine, not now, not yet. But my father asked me to make him a promise, so I did.

“I promise, Dad. As long as I’m breathing, I’ll continue to write.” I pushed him to his bedroom, gave him a kiss, and headed outside with my camera on my shoulder. After I took some of the photos I am sharing in this post, I found a quiet place overlooking bird feeders, blooming iris, and a family of deer.

I did as I promised. I wrote for my dad. I wrote for me. I wrote for the sheer joy of writing.




Skittles, Jello, and a Lack of Fries

My return from North Carolina coincides with the beginning of spring in New England. After missing my first flight, I wind up taking a later one. Much later. My arrival home is well after midnight, when I am too weary for words. In the dark, I drag my suitcase across the driveway, up five steps, and then retire to bed, in hopes of escaping my nagging thoughts. Remembering what I was unable to accomplish while visiting my parents makes sleep difficult, but I arise early, and in the daylight, I happily discover that some of NC has made its way back to Connecticut. Bulbs have begun to break through the earth in search of the warm sun. Hope, for me, has returned.

I let the sight of the blue iris and purple crocuses soak in, and then I begin to tackle the fall leaves that have provided a blanket of warmth and protection for my flowerbeds. I rake, pull weeds, and then head inside to make a few phone calls to the medical staff at UNC. Back in the sunshine, I smell the flowers, and throw balls for Merlin, our sheltie, to catch, my cell phone nearby.  

Yet, I am desperate to do more. I want to fix our broken health care system and keep Medicare and Medicaid from dwindling down to nothing. I want to cure any and all diseases that inflict suffering. But I can’t, and it makes me feel helpless at times. Helpless to those I love and know, including customers I’ve met at the toy store where I work, strangers I’ve spoken to in passing, and people I’ve read about.

I sit on our front stoop, throw another ball across the yard for Merlin, and wonder if anything I do matters enough, especially in the face of everything else the elderly have to contend with.  I want to scream, but instead I focus on the small acts of kindness.

Small acts of kindness do matter. They matter very much. They can be as simple as a hug or listening to a person tell a story, much needing to be told, or greeting a stranger, who appears to be suffering, to ask how they are doing. Let them know that someone cares.

Life has its ups and downs; joys and tragedies; failures and triumphs. Don’t let that stop you from doing the small things, as my father reminded me just last week. Even when the situation resembles a solid brick wall and seems so insurmountable that you’d rather hide under the covers all day, think about chipping at the wall. Little by little. These are the ways you can empower your characters when they are facing their own brick wall. Do not bring in a bulldozer to knock down the wall for your character. Give them small actions to do, and then, as a writer, stand aside and let them be. The character must figure it out on their own.

Though I wanted to bring in a bulldozer to help my father, instead, I focused on cheering him on, so he could do what he needed most: return home to write. Writing is what keeps his heart beating, his soul singing, his mind marching forward. He, in turn, wanted to help me, knowing I had set aside my writing to be with him and my mother. Through humor, my father—a lifetime writer—gave me a gift. He reminded me that a novel—especially one written for children—must have elements of hope, places where the reader can catch their breath and scenes that enforce humor.

While my father did not exactly use those words, that is what he was trying to show me through his actions, using a real-life situation. Essentially, he planted the seeds to burn in my belly, so I would yearn to write again. Write about hope and hopelessness, all layered with humor.

I realized this later on the plane ride home, when I found myself spontaneously smiling, and then bursting into laughter over Skittles. The ache in my belly returned and while people dozed on either side on me, I picked up a pen and let it lead me home, words spilling across the paper, faster than the speed of the plane.

Thank you, Dad, for this:

I arrive at the after-care facility to check my father out for the evening. Tired of the bland meals he had been eating for the past two weeks, he wants real food. I find him waiting in the front living area, looking tired and weak, but still able to entertain the other patients in the near vicinity. After greeting the three women seated near my father, I help him out of his chair.

“You need to check him out,” says a woman with a gruff voice, pointing her cane at me and my father, who is now grasping the walker, afraid to let go.

“I do?” I ask.

“Yes, otherwise they’ll think he’s run off.”

Clearly, he is not capable of running off.

“Oh, Lord, they’ll come looking for me. They’ll send the police and—”

“Dad, I got it. I’ll run upstairs and take care of this.” I seat him back down and leave him to tell more jokes, all of which I’ve heard a number of times.

Upstairs, the nurses’ station is unoccupied. I walk up and down the halls. Bells are going off in two rooms. People are moaning. I want to leave now. Then I spot two elderly women, both in wheelchairs, voicing their opinions.

“That woman is so dang bossy. Likes to think she runs the place.”


“’Cause of her, I’ve been waiting and waiting for my medicine, and they were supposed to bring me some more Jello. Red Jello. I hate that green stuff.”

“The man in #304 is hoarding Jello in his room. I seen it.”

“He is? Maybe I should wheel down there and pay him a visit. Man weighs a ton. Don’t need more Jello. I’m the one who needs it. I am gonna starve to death staying in this place.”

I tap the shoulder of the main talker. She spins around to face me. I smile. “Excuse me, but do you know where I might find a nurse on this floor?”

“Why you need a nurse? You can walk.”

“Well, I need to sign my dad out for the evening, so I can take him out to dinner.”

The Talker’s eyes light up. “You got a car?”


She nudges her friend’s elbow. “You got room in your car for two more?”

“. . . Not really,” I say and picture my car loaded with two walkers, my luggage, one wheelchair, and my parents. The only room left is on the roof.

“Where you taking him?”

“I don’t know yet. I need to sign him out first.”

“Who’s your dad?”

Unsure of what room my father is in, I pray it isn’t #304, even though their description of the man didn’t fit my father. I tell them his name and wait.

“Oh, yeah . . . Mr. Devany, I know him. He’s a hard worker. Wants to get out of here real bad. Shows off in the exercise room.”

“That’s a nice surprise,” I say.

“Uh-huh, they say if I can walk like him and get out of this wheelchair, then I can leave too.”

I turn back to search for the nurse. Nothing.

“I bet you’re strong enough to get out of the wheelchair. Just keep trying. Keep believing you can do it,” I tell her.

“Thank you, young lady, for believing in me. I will keep trying.”

“You’re welcome,” I say, nodding. “Do you know when the nurse might return?”

The Talker again bumps elbows with her friend. They laugh at some inside joke.

“You’ll be waiting all night for her, I reckon,” offers the Talker.

Ten minutes have passed since I left my father downstairs. I head back to the nurses’ station, desperate to find the log-out sheet. The two women wheel behind me, while one shouts, “Just sign any ole paper and leave it there.”

“Are you allowed to do that?” I ask, tentatively.

“Hell, no, but we’ll vouch for you.”

I find a pile of papers citing the activities for the week. I turn to the backside and scribble a note, noting the time of the departure and expected return.

Then I run downstairs to break my dad out of the place, walker and all.

“Hurry, Dad, we have to go. Now!”

“I can’t go. I need a dollar. Two dollars.”

“What for? We’re running late. Mom is waiting in the car.”

He clutches the walker and pushes it toward the front desk. “See that red box there? The store has been out of them for a week; my supply is nearly gone. I eat one an hour. I’ll never make it through the night.”

I have been in NC for less than two hours and I am already facing an unforeseen challenge. I follow him to the desk and ask the young clerk for assistance.

“Skittles. Mr. Devany loves Skittles.” She points above her head to a red box filled with the candies. “We just got them in today, along with the Reese’s Pieces.

“Oh, Lord, they got Reese’s in too? Now I need three dollars.”

“Dad, we have to go.”

“I can’t leave until I get my candies. They’ll be gone by the time I come back.”

Out the door, down the ramp we go. Step by step, inch by inch. All the while, I hear about the Skittles and the Reese’s Pieces, and then, how the care facility lacks French Fries and cheese biscuits. We finally make it to the car.

“I don’t think I can get in the car, I’m too weak . . .  just thinking about running out of Skittles.” He leans against the car and feigns panting.

“Fine,” I’ll get your Skittles, but you have to get in the car first.”

Ten minutes later, he is seated and buckled in; I fold the walker and place it next to my mother’s. After I find a five-dollar bill in my purse, I head for the ramp.

“Don’t forget: One Skittles. Two of those Reese’s things.”

Candies safely secured in the car, we head for real food. I forget that it is a Saturday night. The restaurants are all crowded. The search for cheese biscuits is unsuccessful. Red Lobster has a one-hour wait. I park the car; check the waiting time at other restaurants: Longhorn Steakhouse, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesdays. All one-hour waits, if not longer.

Back in the car, I lean my head against the steering wheel and groan.

“It’s kind of late. I need to eat soon so I can take my medicines. Did the nurse give them to you?” my dad says.

“I didn’t talk to the nurse, Dad. No one was there.”

“Oh, Lord, you didn’t sign me out?”

“No, Dad, I left a note with two women in wheelchairs.”

“Oh, no, that had to be Miss Eula and Bessie. They will be in my room, right now, stealing my Skittles.”

I assure my father that his new package of Skittles is safe in my car, though I can’t attest to the honesty of Miss Eula and Bessie. A loss of three pieces of Skittles is small change in the scope of things.

Finally, I find a deli. One I am familiar with, and which has easy access. I open the car doors. Take out the two walkers. Unfold them. Set one up in front of each parent.

“You gave me the wrong walker,” says my mom. “Mine has the tennis balls for feet.”

I swap the walkers, and then, like a cheerleader, I root for my dad to rise up and out of the car seat. He does, followed by my mother. Creeping along, we make our way into McAllister’s Deli. Ten minutes pass. We find a table. My parents sit. I grab three menus from the front counter and bring them back to our table. For the moment, life is good . . . until my dad reads over the menu.

“Where are the French Fries? I don’t see French Fries listed,” he says.

I consider the arithmetic, and then share the math with my father. “Dad, I am one person helping two people, both on walkers, and we are all starving. All the other restaurants have long waiting times and it is currently 9 p.m. Do you know what that equals?”

“No French Fries?” he says.

“Bingo,” I say and hand him a bag of chips.

P.S.- Dad, I love you, oodles and boodles and spaghetti galore. I can feel you writing across the miles. Know that I am too.  XO

P.P.S – Miss Eula, keep believing. You can do it! One step at a time.

 The link for this week’s Free Fall Friday is http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/free-fall-friday-13/