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Pets: Bringing out the Best in Us…

One week ago today we lost our sheltie, Cassie. Like most of our animals, she was a rescue. We took Cassie in, knowing she had severe hip dysplasia and was terrified of people. She came into our family on a foggy December day in 2006, and it took until May of 2007 for Cassie to walk up to me and sniff my hand. I was so touched I cried out loud. That experience was short-lived, and by the next day, we were starting all over again with the bonding thing–kind of like the movie, “Groundhog’s Day.”

For most of Cassie’s life, she remained reclusive, hiding out in our bedroom. The grandchildren understood this about Cassie and would enter the room where she sat regally like a queen on her soft, fleece bed. They would pet her for just a few seconds, and when she looked fearful (as she does in this picture), they would leave the room so she could relax again. There were times when Cassie’s inability to bond frustrated me, but my ever patient husband, Jim, would quickly remind me that our job was just to love and tend to her. At the end of her life, Jim cooked her bacon and eggs, the only thing she ate during her final days.

I’ve thought a lot about Cassie during the past seven days, wondering why we even bothered to take her in because she gave us so little in return during the nearly ten years we had her. But every pet serves a purpose–teaches us a lesson, and in Cassie’s case, it was the lesson of unconditional love. Maybe that’s what this was really all about–to teach us how to respect and love someone even when they can’t give back. I’m betting someone reading this has a story to tell about a pet who brought out the best in you. I’d love to hear it.

Blessings on All of You,

Tessa

Hurricane Heroes

This picture taken from our patio several years ago serves as a reminder that weather in Texas can be a dangerous thing.

Recently Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston and the surrounding areas, leaving many people homeless. Scores of people drowned in the aftermath. As the death count rose, we saw a plethora of individuals helping rescue the less fortunate. Some of those rescuers had no idea if they even had a home to return to, but they still continued saving the lives of people they’d never met.

Within a week’s time, Hurricane Irma severely impacted the state of Florida. Once again, rescuers rose to the occasion and saved countless lives. Like many of you I was glued to the television, watching strangers helping strangers, putting their own lives on the line. Some of the real life heroes were: Red Cross workers, police officers, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, teachers, concerned neighbors, and a “dreamer” from Lufkin, Texas.

The rescuers got me to thinking about what constitutes real life heroes–the ones readers truly care about. In this case they were everyday people, not politicians dressed in expensive suits, although several made a point of visiting the affected areas. I’ll stop there, resisting the temptation to call these well thought out photo ops. Nor were the rescuers billionaires who broker deals on Wall Street. The real heroes were everyday people who couldn’t bear the thought of others suffering and stepped up—expecting nothing in return. While it’s true that many wealthy individuals stepped up to donate large sums of money, it’s a well-known fact that the less fortunate are the first to reach out and give to those in need.

As a writer, I’ve been inspired by these “hurricane heroes” and plan to include more ordinary people in my works; people like the wonderful foster family who took me in as a child when I had no where else to go. Who knows, maybe I’ll have my heroine be the lovely waitress in Ireland at our hotel who worked a double shift and doted on us as though she was our daughter. Consider leaving a comment about the real heroes in your own life-the type folks would like to read about.

You are all my heroes, and I’m thankful you took the time to read this!
TESSA

Heroes Among Us

As a writer, I’m always in search of heroes for my books. Last week we lost a true hero, and I’d like to share his memory with you.

On July 25th, we said our final goodbyes to Reverend John Edward Buteyn Jr., my minister of two dozen years. Although Pastor Jack had retired from the ministry years ago, over five hundred mourners flooded the sanctuary to pay their respects at his Celebration of Life service. Everyone had their own “Pastor Jack” story, of course, but the common thread woven throughout all the tributes was how Jack managed to make each and every member of his congregation feel as though they were the most important person on earth.

Another remark I heard was that with Pastor Jack, you didn’t have to put on airs. His son, Erik reminded us that his dad had his flaws, and never claimed to be perfect. Erik joked about Jack’s impatience with other drivers. One time on a heavily traveled road in Dallas, Pastor Jack grew so frustrated with another driver that he flipped him the bird. Erik was in the car and asked his dad if he realized the driver of the other vehicle had a “Celebrate Life” sticker, a sticker that most of our church members placed on their bumpers. Although some religious folks would be horrified at that admission, I found it refreshing. Perhaps that was why we could just be ourselves around Jack; he was, after all, one of us.

If you’re looking to become a millionaire, the ministry probably isn’t the career you’d choose. But in spite of the fact that Pastor Jack frequently golfed with affluent businessmen, I doubt he’d have traded places with any of them. While I’m certain many in his inner circle earned tenfold what Jack did, he was elated to be a part of Christian ministry, a career that centered around public service. His wife of fifty years, Linda, was a lifelong educator and Jack was incredibly proud of her passion for teaching in the Plano Independent School District. When the school district had a huge growth spurt, Jack stepped up to serve on the school board, making sure teachers’ voices were heard by the business community and other members of the school board. Teachers knew early on that Jack Buteyn was someone who had their backs.

Pastor Jack had a true passion for children, and the Children’s Sermon on Sunday mornings was something we all anticipated. He’d call the kids up, plop down on the steps and put on a crazy hat. The hats changed from Sunday to Sunday–sometimes it was a Doctor Seuss hat–other times it was a colorful hat with braids. He’d deliver a mini sermon on a level the kids understood, and then ask an open ended question. To be honest, I think sometimes he set us up because the children’s responses were utterly hilarious. He saw the potential in our young people and reveled in their achievements. When our son, Matt, was one of three high school students chosen to deliver a portion of the sermon on graduation Sunday, Jack took the kids into his office the week before and proofread their sermons, making sure the message they created was well organized and focused. He wanted them to look good, and indeed, they did.

But the thing I believe our church members appreciated the most was Pastor Jack’s ability to administer to them in their time of need. He always knew just what to say, and sometimes, what not to say. He probably put in tens of thousands of hours caring for his flock in hospital rooms and homes over the course of his thirty year ministry, hugging them, praying with them, consoling them. In a world filled with individuals craving attention, Jack quietly, with no fanfare, helped people who were suffering heal.

Most of us left Pastor Jack’s Celebration of Life service heartsick because we’d lost a dear friend who was absolutely irreplaceable. In this day of political upheaval, angry Facebook posts, and tweets laced with vulgarities, it’s important to focus on real heroes–the ones like Pastor Jack who enjoyed a lively debate with his parishioners, but always respected them and left their egos intact. That’s the mark of a true hero, and those are the types I’ll continue putting in my books. Thank you, Pastor Jack, for a life well lived. You will be missed.

The Luck of the Irish!

This past Christmas my husband, Jim, surprised me with a trip to Ireland. Jim rarely leaves our plethora of four legged critters which include: two miniature donkeys, two goats, and four dogs, but to my relief, he was willing to turn their care over to someone else for eight days. That, in itself, was a miracle! On May 30th, we flew to the lush, amazing countryside of Ireland. Everything about this trip was spectacular and I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’m seriously contemplating an Irish setting for my next novel. You can probably tell by the pictures why I fell so utterly and completely in love with Ireland.

I learned a great deal about the Irish and was enormously impressed with their strong work ethic. The sweet young lady at our hotel served us a fabulous dinner at 7:00 PM, and when I went down to breakfast the following morning, she was there once again. When we expressed surprise at how many hours she put it, she expressed gratitude for having a job she could count on.

Those of you following me on Facebook probably know that after a dozen years of writing, one of my books, Last Chance Texas has been picked up by Soul Mate Publishing. For me (and, yes, I know some authors make millions of dollars self-publishing), having a publishing house offer me a contract is a dream come true. The road to publication is a challenging one, and as I seek to build my fan base, I hope you’ll support me. If you aren’t following me on Facebook, I encourage you to consider doing that. Invite your friends. (www.facebook.com/authortessagray) I just joined bookbub and am just starting to find followers. Once I acquire followers, I’ll begin discounting my books for you. (https://www.bookbub.com/authors/tessa-gray).

I count myself lucky to have you as a support system and wish you many blessings this year. May the luck of the Irish be with you (and I’m certain it has been for me in 2017!)

Ancestry DNA: Fact or Fiction?

I grew up in foster care, so I have very few pictures of myself as a child. I’ve always been told I’m German, English, and Irish, with possibly a sprinkle of Swiss and French tossed in. Relatives on my dad’s side swore on a stack of Bibles that my Irish ancestors migrated to America during that famous Irish Potato Famine in the 1800’s. As I glance at my favorite childhood picture, I’m not really feeling the Irish thing, but you never know.
My very considerate husband surprised me with a trip to Ireland this spring. I immediately began obsessing over whether or not I really had Irish blood in me. I knew I had plenty of German in me because my great Aunt Lillian Trittebaugh made sure everyone got a copy of the family tree on my mother’s side. Because my unmarried name was Collins,I felt fairly certain the English portion of my ancestry was a pretty sure thing, too. The English part intrigued me because many of my writing friends profess to be descended from Henry VIII. How cool would it be if that was the case with me! After months of listening to me lament over whether or not I was really Irish, my husband sent away for a DNA kit. Be forewarned when it arrives, you have to spit 1/4 teaspoon of saliva into a tube (it took me 7 tries). We mailed it back in, and I crossed my fingers, eager to discover the Irish side of my ancestry. I’d just finished a series about four sisters with Irish roots. How cool would it be to wrap things up by showing off my Irish heritage!

Those of you familiar with the Bible know there’s a verse in there that says, “Pride goeth before a fall.” So I’m getting all puffed up about finally discovering my Irish ancestors, anticipating revisiting my heritage. I’m envisioning castles here but am pretty much open to the idea of discovering my relatives may have lived in a workhouse during the Potato Famine. How romantic would that be! Meanwhile…back at the ranch, hubby is tracing my family history on ancestry. The workhouse, poverty thing was partially correct, but in my case, I had relatives from England who were poor gypsies and after not being able to make a decent living, ended up in America.

The big day finally arrived and I got the DNA results back. Not a lick of Irish in me. Lots of Western European (this includes Germany and a ton of other countries), quite a bit of Great Britain (this includes England, Scotland, and Wales, (it does NOT include Ireland), and some family who were probably fur traders along the route of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Should be an interesting trip to Blarneyland, but I know when I sit at the pubs sipping Irish whiskey, my second cousin ten times removed won’t be sitting there with me! Maybe they can adopt me-it wouldn’t be the first time someone felt pity for me!

The Naked Truth about Writing

While polling my readers several months ago, I discovered that while many like to read purely for pleasure as an escape, some desired books that gave them pause and made them think. Initially when I started writing, more experienced authors warned me not to be too edgy–not to ever kill off an animal–not to write about priests falling in love. Perhaps because I’m older, I’m more intent on writing about important issues and obstacles readers face every day instead of fretting over whether or not a publisher will take on my novel.

In My Dearest Maggie, the heroine’s mother is forced to depend on a food pantry to help nourish her because she’s fallen on hard times. While that’s not exactly a pretty image–a mother of four grown children picking through cans of green beans as she hides from her neighbors, it does reflect the current state of some individuals living in this country. In My Dearest Chloe, the heroine is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who the town is just itching to see backslide. While the townspeople I created in this series are religious and upstanding, they’re far from perfect–prone to judgment. I’m glad I took the risk because this book won first place in the novella category for the 2017 New England Chapter of Romance Writers.

So now that I’ve gotten some fairly positive feedback about taking the plunge and creating more realistic characters, my new series will feature a hero whose wife committed suicide and a heroine who was a victim of domestic violence. I saw firsthand what a battered woman looks like when I was four years old. It wasn’t my mother but a neighbor who lived down the street from us. We lived in a poor neighborhood, but as we all know, abuse isn’t limited to those living in poverty.

I’m not altogether certain that as writers we can stay neutral. If we take a risk and tackle real life issues head out, quite possibly for someone in our village of readers, we will make a difference. We never know the impact our writing will have. I leave you with the words of Elie Wiesel: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Surprising the Cynic

Not much gets past me since Jim and I tied the knot 43 years ago. I’d like to think I can pretty much predict what he’ll get me for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and my birthday. Call me crazy, but I’m convinced that undergraduate degree in psychology I received decades ago gives me an edge. Or so I thought…

I’m sharing my Christmas story now because it ties in with the theme of Valentine’s Day. For Christmas I often receive perfume or jewelry–both items which I adore. For Valentine’s Day, I generally receive two cards (one from the donkeys, goats, and dogs–one from hubby) and either a box of candy, flowers or perfume.

These are the critters that keep Jim from traveling. In addition to these guys, we have four dogs who cost a fortune to board!

I’d pretty much given up on my dreams of traveling to another country (I’ve never owned a passport) when Jim sat me down on Christmas morning and insisted I open my presents in numerical order (something not terribly unusual for an accountant, I suppose). So…here they are…from top to bottom…

And there you have it; a tiny book of Irish Blessings, a DVD of The Quiet Man, starring the “Duke” and Maureen O’Hara, my favorite singing group, Celtic Woman, and a Celtic calendar.


The 5th and final gift was a lovely, red box that I assumed held jewelry. Never mind that hubby was rolling his eyes, wondering why I wasn’t more excited about my gifts, but as I told you in the title, I’m a cynic, and the notion that Jim would leave behind all our animals and take me to Ireland escaped me. He’d gone so far as to weigh down the jewelry box with an old watch so that I’d think it really was jewelry. And there, lying at the very top of the box, something I’d missed while pouring through it, was an itinerary of our trip to Ireland. The moral of this story is that romance is alive and well. Never give up on your dreams, and most importantly, never, ever believe that you’ve got this marriage thing all figured out. Because–you don’t.

Celebrating the Village . . .

          My Crescent Falls novellas were set in Minnesota—the place I still call home. I’ve decided to take a break from writing fiction and work on my memoir. Since I’d already plowed through the first draft, it made perfect sense to fly out to Minnesota to celebrate my 50th high school reunion and reconnect with individuals I haven’t seen in decades.

thumbnail_20160827_111231  Eager to squeeze in as many memories as possible, I took pictures of my home in Maple Grove (“The House that Built Me”), school friends from Mrs. Ewing’s fourth grade class, and many classmates who have shown me great kindness. As a child, I’d been shuttled between foster homes and hoped this last move would be a permanent one. Thankfully, it was. To this day I remain grateful for having crossed paths with such amazing students: Nancy G., Linda G., Dawn & Dave E., Caren S., Jean H., Connie G., Sandie O, Marjory W., Lynn K.—the list goes on.

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To my delight, I discovered that many of the ’66 graduates of Osseo High School had a plethora of stories—all incredibly fascinating. Many have switched careers and are now working in professions that give their lives meaning. Others have retired and volunteer around the clock to make our world a better place. Looking back, we were all just a bunch of middle class kids having a good time, but in reality, what we all accomplished was astonishing. True—we’re not individuals who’ve achieved fame and adulation, but rather the individuals folks remember—the ones who help shape individuals—the village of people who mentor others. Truth be told, they’re the types of characters I write about in my novels. I returned home refreshed, and ready to write again.

          As we begin this school year, I challenge you to thank a teacher who’s made a difference. In my case, it was Mrs. Ewing—a woman who made a shy, frightened, fourth grade foster kid feel special in a classroom full of children. Please leave a comment on my website and share with us a teacher who made a difference in your life. I’ll place your name in a drawing and if you win, I’ll send you a complimentary print copy of My Dearest Maggie, the first book in my Crescent Falls Series. I’d love you to visit my author’s page and follow me: www.facebook.com/authortessagray

          Thank you for taking the time to read this post. May God richly bless you.

Tessa

 

 

 

 

Lasting Legacies. . .

On August 10th, Jim and I  celebrate 43 years of marriage. To quote Jim, “These have been the 5 happiest years of my life!” (the joke never gets old!) The years have been kind to us, and we remain grateful for each other.

Our Wedding 081073Gay & JimHere is part of the wedding invitation we sent our guests: “We have made a human decision to love each other for life.” It’s probably a bit simplistic, but it’s worked well for us: that, plus a huge dose of humor!

Now that I’m fully retired from college teaching, I’m enjoying quilting with my good friend, Holly Barr. My most recent work is a character quilt representing each of the Hanlon sisters in my Crescent Falls Series. For those of you who’ve read all four books, you can probably look at this character quilt and figure out the two patches that represent each girl in the series. (Maggie, Clare, Sarah, and Chloe) I tossed in a couple extra patches for the matriarch, Helen, and her husband, Ken. I love when art forms (writing and quilting, in my case) come together.

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The last picture on the right is our latest endeavor: making goats milk soap and lotion. Our lovely granddaughter, Livi considers the goat we milk (Little Goat) to be hers because she named her. So…we had to name the lotion after her, didn’t we?

Many readers wanted the Crescent Falls Series to be in print. Thanks to my husband, you may purchase them from amazon in printed form. I am proud to have dedicated the 4th book to my classmates of Osseo High. We will celebrate our 50th HS reunion on Aug. 27th in Maple Grove, MN. I’ll let you know all about it when I return! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

 

 

Writing: Pain or Pleasure

Tessa's Office (2)Tessa's Books & Swag (2)Tessa's Cowboy Quilt (2)

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” – George Orwell

“I don’t believe in being serious about anything. I think life is too serious to be taken seriously.” – Ray Bradbury, WD

Like every author, as I prepare to plot my next novel, I examine these two very different approaches to writing and plan the book accordingly. As I prepare to write my eighth novel, I realize that I’m more inclined to take Orwell’s advice than I am the Bradbury approach. And yet, I consider it my civic duty to keep abreast of what readers are looking for.20160115_143648 (1)In the Crescent Falls Series, I just finished the last book, My Dearest Chloe. I ended up being nearly a year behind schedule. As I examined what kept me from publishing this book, I realized that I was going a bit outside the box because readers consider my books Sweet Romance. Chloe was a recovering alcoholic and had abused drugs, as well. She bordered on narcissism, something I deplore. But in the end, she completely reinvented herself when circumstances forced her to step up and care for her Alzheimer’s ridden father. And when childhood friend, Luke Owens, threatens to kill the man who nearly ran both of them over in a tragic accident, it’s Chloe who intervenes and keeps Luke from destroying his family and boy scout clean image.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have touched the topic of substance abuse with a ten foot pole (as the cliché goes), but today, we’re living in a different world. With another heroin epidemic among us and prescription drugs seriously out of control, it’s important to me that fictional works bear some resemblance to real life.  My Facebook friends apparently agree with me because when surveyed, they articulated how important it is for writer’s address real life issues. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take Bradbury’s advice and stop taking ourselves too seriously. My next novel (which I’d like YOU, the readers, to name) will address the struggles of political spouses being thrust in the limelight. My Facebook friends indicate this would be a timely topic. While politics is something, indeed, to be taken seriously, we can all agree that, at times, elected officials invite us to poke fun at them (in an ever so kindly way!)

I’d love to receive your feedback on what YOU would like authors to write about. Feel free to leave a comment and please sign up for my newsletter which comes out only 3 times a year. I invite you to follow me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/authortessagray

Regards,

Tessa