How I wrote my first novel.

storybookI still have the book of fairytales my parents bought me when I was a toddler. It is a well worn treasure. Reading or listening to stories has always had a special magic for me. I am fascinated with how authors tell their tales or how they describe what is happening. In first grade I won an essay contest. I decided I would write a novel when I grew up. All through school my favorite assignments were essay writing. In 7th grade I began writing a story that would someday become my first novel.

After college, for some reason, I stopped writing. In 2003 I had the bug to write again, or at least I thought I had it. I was so sure I was ready to write my novel, I bought a laptop at Best Buy. Months passed without a single sentence being composed. I had no clear concept of what I wanted to write about.

I had no clear concept of what I wanted to write about.”

While home from work one day in 2011, the story I had begun to write in 7th grade came back to my mind. Over the next months I would drive to work without the radio on to allow room for the sentences and entire conversations that were forming in my mind. Then I designated Friday’s for writing and the story began to fill a notebook. Every Thursday night before bed I would read what I had written the week before, to refresh my memory. The next morning I would start writing after everyone left for work or school.

Writing on Friday was priority above everything: no hiking or coffee with friends, less house cleaning, and order out pizza for dinner. By January 2012 I had a complete rough draft that totaled 85 pages in my notepad. I typed it into the computer and began filling the story in. It grew every time I wrote. By fall of 2014 I had written 60,000 words. The book was ready for beta readers and feedback.

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In December the editing began. I started re-writing the edits and researching publishing options. I eliminated almost 10,000 words. In January I signed a contract with Lulu Publishing.

June 3rd, 2015, my first novel was published. In July a bookclub in Scottsdale used my book for their summer group, the first book store to carry my book, ordered copies. I planned a book tour in Pennsylvania where the story takes place. The marketing for this book continued.

I learned many lessons one of which was I couldn’t write until the story was ready to be told. When I was ready, I scheduled time to write. I had always heard it said, “you are only a writer if you write every day”. I learned to ignore what people said I should be doing and did what worked for me. As a mom with a full time job, I only had 1 day a week to write.

“I learned to ignore what people said I should be doing and did what worked for me.”

If I got stuck I would read over what I wrote and see what came to me. Even if I only wrote one wonderful paragraph in a day I was happy. After 3 ½ years of 1 day a week of writing, The Common Hours was published.


Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

Featured post

Scented Threads


Two months ago I lost my best friend to cancer, and one week ago my youngest daughter tragically lost her birth mother. Death reminds me how vincible we are and every loss brings about it’s own kind of reflection and grief.

Shortly after the death of my best friend, her widower gave me an armful of blankets and sweaters that Gretchen had knitted. As the woven threads tumbled into my arms from his, a sweet scent drifted upward. I sunk my nose into the threads and breathed deep. It was her; a mixture of Chanel no.20, coffee, and scented lotions. That night, in spite of the 110-degree summer outside, I pulled one of her knitted blankets over me and slept wrapped in her scent. Part of her was still with me.

The next day I draped one of her blankets over a chair in the living room. I draped it in the way she used to lay it across the corner of her living room couch, a carefully orchestrated “accidental look” across the back and arm of the chair. Every evening after work I would sit in the chair, reach over to smell the threads, and remember her.

One evening, about a week later, as I was talking with one of my daughters, I casually reached back to pull the blanket toward my nose. My daughter was still talking, my little Chihuahua was lying near my feet, and my husband was working on the computer. My heart paused while I held the blanket in my hand. Gretchen’s scent had been completely extinguished and absorbed by the scent of our home. She was gone from her threads.

Gretchen had taught me much about life. She had endured the loss of her only son. She knew pain but she knew joy too. She poured herself into others around her, and what she poured was sweet and refreshing. It was after I met her I realized I could be happy in spite of my unanswered prayers and overwhelming desire to have children. It was Gretchen who taught me I had something to pour out for others.

Gretchen and her love.

God was teaching me yet again. Gretchen had poured herself into me. I realized the lost scent in the threads were similar to her life being poured out into mine. The knitted blanket was now part of my home with its own blend of spices, soaps, and coffee. I sat in the chair and laced my fingers through the open spaces between the stitches in the blanket. I looked at my daughters and my husband and I pulled the blanket to my nose. I had already been doing what Gretchen had taught me. I had been pouring into these great loves of my life. I was looking at the threads of my life and it was my turn to weave into them what Gretchen had given me and what God had given us both. Love.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours




To Love and to Let God.


Answering the call to love others even when the results could be negative.

I held a purse over my head and splashed through newly formed puddles between the grocery store and my car. I laughed, and my daughter shrieked. Rain in the desert was a rare joy. She reached the car first then ran in place while she waited for me to unlock the door. I hit the unlock button twice. We simultaneously hopped inside the dry shell. With windshield wipers turned on high I started to drive out of the parking lot. Through the water blurred windshield I observed a woman at the edge of the parking lot trying to lift a cart whose wheels had locked from an anti-theft device installed by stores. Three bags of groceries sat in the basket along with a backpack and a satchel. A large purse and a little dog were in the top seat compartment. Everything was being drenched while she struggled to make the cart move; the shivering dog was pushing against her possessions to try to find shelter.

I felt a nudge in my heart. I looked at my daughter, then at the clock. It was time to fix dinner and get to my book study. I pulled out of the parking lot still watching the woman in my rearview mirror. The rain did not relent over her hunched back. As soon as I turned onto the road I stepped on the gas. Home was only around the corner. I left the motor running when I arrived home and told my daughter to stay in the car. I ran into the garage looking for the umbrella and found it hanging next to the garden tools. I raced back outside, threw the umbrella into the back of the car then drove quickly to the parking lot. The woman was still there. Both my daughter and I ran to her side.

I offered the woman my umbrella. She pointed out she had one already but could not pull on the cart and hold her umbrella too. We tried pulling on the cart with her. It was clear we would not be able to make it across the lot and to the bus stop on the other side of the street where she was headed. Within seconds all of her wet possessions were in the trunk of my car with our unpacked groceries, and her and her dog were sitting quietly in the back seat. When she was settled at the sheltered bus stop across the street she expressed her gratefulness then she told us, “Thank you. I was asking God to help me when you came along.” We raced back to the dry car with tears in our eyes. We never saw her again.

There have been others like her. There was the red headed young man holding a sign near an off ramp on the 51 asking for food. My girls and I were tearful when his face broke into a wide smile as we held a McDonalds bag outside the window for him. Or the young man and his dog who sat outside Fry’s this past winter and how eventually he would look up from his book, make eye contact and smile in return to my smile. An elderly woman in the store who couldn’t get her wheelchair by a store display and needed someone to  nudge the cardboard display to the side. I can’t help them all but I am grateful for the the few whose lives intersect with mine.

I hear those nudges to help someone more than I used to. That day in 2013 when I was standing in a coffee shop with a plan to kill myself and God used a cup of coffee to remind me He loved me, my perspective on life began to change. (See “Stopping for Coffee on the way to Death” blog). God used a stranger to simply pay forward a cup of coffee and it changed the course of my life. I never met the person who paid for the coffee so I do not know the reason they chose to do it. That person never knew if I said thank you or if I drank the liquid with delight. They had no idea they helped save a life that day. The good deed was done simply for the sake of doing good.

I have always wanted to make a difference in the world by loving others in need. When my husband and I could not have children we decided to adopt. Ten years ago I held a photograph in my hand of a brother and sister peeking out from behind a palm tree who needed a family. Four years ago my heart tugged again over the photo of a girl living in a shelter. Then two years ago my daughter’s friend came for an overnight and we learned she had nowhere to live.

I was ready to give, to share my life, to love. I wanted to do something of value with my life. Now, looking back and seeing how I struggled with the daily reality of helping someone in need I realized I had expectations I didn’t even know I had; expectations that seemed natural. I was ready to love but I hoped to be loved in return. I was ready to give but to someone who was grateful. I was ready to help if I could make a difference in someone’s future. I became exhausted doing the “right things” because I wasn’t experiencing the “results” or “rewards” I thought would naturally follow. I knew the passage in Matthew 25 but not as well as I thought.

Matthew 25:35-40

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[f] you did it to me.’

I became exhausted doing the “right things” because I wasn’t experiencing the “results” or “rewards” I thought would naturally follow.

The Bible talks a lot about loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the orphans and widows but not once does it say to do it when you think they will be grateful or when they will love you in return. We are told to do it because we do it to Him (Matthew 23:35) because it pleases Him (Hebrews 13:16).

My desire to do good was not a bad thing but the burden of what I expected in return led to disappointment, discouragement and heart break. The only reconciliation for the pit I found myself in was to surrender the outcome of my love toward others to God. I had taken ownership of outcomes that did not belong in my control. God had only asked me to love.

Love or good deeds given without expectation of what we receive in return is anti-cultural. As humans we naturally measure the worth of our actions by the outcome. We know we are doing the right thing if there is a measurable positive outcome. A negative outcome means we need to try something different. I love watching youtube videos of people helping others where the recipient is brought to grateful tears or ends up having a completely different future because of the help. I can be brought to tears any day of the week watching these kind of stories. Over the last couple of years I began to ask myself questions that were too embarrassing to voice to anyone else. Questions like, Is it irresponsible to feed a homeless person who maybe hasn’t been responsible? It is a waste of resources to sacrifice personal comfort or finances for someone who is ungrateful? Is it a waste of emotional energy to love a child who cannot or will not love you in return? God had only asked me to love.

Did Jesus hang on the cross knowing he would be rejected? He so loved the world that He gave His only son. He died for everyone but not everyone would love Him in return, and not everyone would be grateful. God reached forward with His love toward us. God tells us when we reach forward to others we are pleasing Him. God has a large plan at work that we only see a small part of. When I release the outcome or what I expect in return to God I gain a greater capacity to love. Whatever God is working out is greater than any expectation I can have.

free to love-1

I still want to make a difference in the world. I still want to be loved by others. By loving others without expectation I AM being a difference in the world. By knowing I am loved by God I can confidently love someone in need. By releasing ownership of the outcome I am able to rest when I am weary from the task, I am able to not grumble when someone is ungrateful, and I am able to give without wondering if my gift will be wisely used. It not about releasing the use of wise decision-making, it’s about releasing the results I cannot control. When I love my children or help a stranger I don’t have to worry about how they may respond. My job is simply to love.

Maybe today I will hear that voice inside nudging me toward helping someone in need outside or someone in need inside my four walls. It might be the answer to someone’s prayer, or it might be God is doing work inside me, or maybe a bit of both. I am free to love without expectation; free to thrive when I have spent my energy on love; free to be grateful when I have given my resources to love; free to love because God loves me.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours





Goodbye for now.


She said “yes” to her sweetheart by the edge of a lake. He would love her for another 58 years on this earth. On June 14th at 11:40am he whispered, “Goodbye sweetheart, I love you” as she took her last breath.

Two months ago I sat near her, our chairs facing each other. He was in the kitchen making latte’s for us. The doctor had told her she had 2 or 3 months left with us. She was much thinner than the woman I had come to know but her smile hadn’t changed. He gave us time together then joined us with his own latte. We talked and laughed together until the light in the room slipped away. At times she would look at him and he would return her gaze. I could see the affection and the goodbyes in their looks. They told me of their journeys, of their faith in God, about the son she would soon see again. We all shed some tears but we laughed more often.

I would come again before she passed. Between my visits I would hear from him. He would tell of days spent by her side of the deterioration he was witnessing. Not wanting to miss a moment, he never left her side. He would speak softly to her, recalling memories of their life together. She opened her eyes from her rest once and spoke, “I love you so very much”.

On my last visit the three of us prayed together wrapped in each other’s arms. It was goodbye for now.

Days later I heard from him again. She had awakened briefly during one of his talks to her. No words were spoken but she had put her hands on his cheeks and pulled him close and looked at him. His heart was breaking.

Then Heaven welcomed her home.

Dearest sweetest one whose words of wisdom, smile, and laugh was unlike any other, you are missed. You ran the race with beauty. Goodbye for now Gretchen.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours







Stopping for coffee on the way to death

storm dump

“Maybe the love gets in easier right where the heart’s broke open.”

-Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

It had come down to a tall Sumatra with room for cream. My favorite Starbucks coffee was warming my hands through a thin paper cup. I was wondering how a cup of coffee could suddenly change the course of my life and make me accept something I had been yearning for so long.

It was a Monday in the spring of 2013. I left work early without saying goodbye because I didn’t want anyone to know I had decided to take my life.

I had a pretty good life. I was married to the love of my life. I had a good job at a church in Scottsdale Arizona, working with a team of people I valued. But I had been unable to reconcile with heartbreak and loss I had been experiencing for years.

During that time my pastor and co-worker reminded our congregation often that God loved us so much. Every time I heard it my mind would say, “Yeah but he doesn’t completely love YOU Tina.” At the age of 25 I put my trust in God and never stopped believing and seeking after Him. For years I didn’t recognize the gaping problem I had with accepting God loved me 100%. I kind of thought he put up with me.

The day I left work to take my life the oddest thing happened on my way home. I stopped at a Starbucks to order coffee. Looking back on this memory I realize how ridiculous it was that I would need a cup of coffee before leaving earth.

I ordered the coffee and handed the cashier my payment. She said the person in front of me had paid for it then she handed me the tall Sumatra with room for cream. The instant my fingers closed around the circumference of the cup I heard in my head, “I’m right here Tina. I see you. I know your pain.”

Gulps of air rushed into my lungs. He loved me. Suddenly it was truth to me. He loved ME! A spark of hope poured into the broken cracks of my heart. God used a cup of coffee to stop me from taking my own life. I guess He knows my love language–coffee.

During the next four years I would continue to walk a difficult road. I came to cherish the knowledge that God was close to the broken hearted. Sometime in April of this year I read Psalm 30:2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me…” And my prayers changed from cries of help to prayers of thanksgiving. The work of healing had been happening all along. I know I am loved and I am healed.

The next time you pay a kind act forward for a stranger God might be using that act to let them know He is with them.


“Until you understand you are loved, you cannot live”. From a sermon by Kevin Butcher, author of Choose and Choose Again.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours







Network Society Defense

Friends Connection Digital Devices Technology Network Concept

A humorous fictional tale

Rumors had been circulating twitter for months and videos were now surfacing on YouTube. I believed it to be a ruse until I had my own experience with them. Last month in the grocery store I saw one in isle 10 looking at pasta. He held a torn paper in his hand, which he glanced at occasionally. There was no evidence of anything else in his hands or even in his back pocket. Sometimes he would glance at a passerby and smile. Just before I answered a text I witnessed him talking with someone near him. It was very evident he was one of them. By the time I finished answering the text he was nowhere in sight.

Last week I came home from work mid-day to retrieve some paperwork. I was barely out of the car when I spotted two of them walking toward me on the sidewalk. A man and a woman chatting and laughing. I looked for headphones, an armband, or a smart watch, but they didn’t appear to have any of those on them, which explained their strange behavior. I needed to get the mail but unfortunately I would have to cross their paths in order to reach the mailbox. Then one of them spotted me. First he made eye contact and then he smiled. I nodded in return, closed the car door, and walked as quickly as possible to the house but not so fast as to appear alarmed. Once inside, I leaned against the door breathing heavily.

A chill swept over me as I thought about what happened this morning during a routine visit to the doctor’s office. I was sitting in a room with 20 other people waiting for a nurse to call out our names. The employees behind the registration desk quietly entered data as patients came in. Except for an occasional cough no one in the room was speaking; everyone was engaged with various media on their devices. All heads were half bent forward, thumbs were scrolling up and down. Sometimes someone would lean in to another person to show them something.

A maid came in the front automatic doors, pushing a large cleaning cart. She pushed the cart over to the men’s room and set up a half fold sign to let people know the bathroom would be closed. I looked up briefly to watch the cart pass by when a strange feeling came over me. I looked at a row of chairs across from me. My pulse increased then my eyes helplessly locked with hers. I looked behind me. No one was there. When I looked at her again she smiled. I nervously smiled back then quickly looked down at my phone.

I slouched down into the thin padded chair and subtly positioned my phone toward her. My Snapchat video would tell of my own encounter with one of them. The woman didn’t seem to notice the phone pointed her direction. I was sure to “scroll” the screen with my thumb and occasionally “smile” at a “video” I wasn’t watching. I hit stop, then played the video back. I was appalled to see her in the video with her hands in her lap as she calmly looked around the room. When she made eye contact with someone she would smile. This seemed to be a pattern I was observing with these kind. She even asked someone close to her a question. I shivered. There must be something wrong with these people. I posted it to Snapchat when I became aware that she was walking toward me and trying to make eye contact again. I looked down at my phone but she was still coming. She sat in the chair next to me. A door near the registration counter opened and a nurse called my name. I ran to the open door barely escaping the encounter.

I came home determined. People had to know. This behavior could potentially spread. With quickened fingers I told the tale for my latest blog. I wanted people to know how to defend themselves against them. It was entitled Network Society Defense. Before posting it, I read it aloud:

“Circle together and keep your heads bent into your devices. Communicating should be tightly bound within the various methods of social media. There are those in our midst who go out into the world with no means of media connection. They even seem to be aware of us and will try to initially make eye contact. Once they succeed at this they will try to make an audible exchange of thoughts (an archaic form of conversation). I believe my recent encounters with them were heightened by the lack of headphones, which I have now purchased. Isolating into our connection is the best defense against those who are not connected. Spread the news on all channels of social media and listen to the rumors. There really are those who walk among us completely aware.”

I hit “publish” on my WordPress platform. I had done my part. I bent my head half forward to lean into the glow coming from my hand. I smiled. Snapchat had released Easter filters early!

Tina D. Stephens

Author of The Common Hours



Deserts & Fountains: Thoughts on Thriving

The late Princess Diana told us, in a BBC interview, that in life you have to choose to either sink or to swim. She was talking about survival.

In my own life I have struggled through infertility, depression, panic attacks, and adoptive parenting issues. And I would like to believe I have chosen (still choosing in some cases) to swim through all of these. Survived.

Until now I saw the label of being a survivor as positive. Survivors are fighters, they have courage, and they do not give up. Survivors are forced to overcome fear, and will often encourage others who are striving to survive.

But survivors are often tired, and always on the edge of fighting the next battle. I picture it like being stranded on a life raft in the middle of shark-infested waters. If you are a survivor, you make a fishing line from clothing, and eat what you catch; you collect rainwater for hydration, and whatever other skills you learned from movies. Danger and death are always near and there is no frivolity or plenty.

Obviously I could not have reached where I am without surviving; it’s an essential skill of living, but I have forgotten how to get past surviving and to thrive. I’m not even sure what thriving actually looks like. Two weeks ago I had one of those days where I couldn’t shake the feeling of discouragement. I spent the day reading, praying, and doing my typical Friday house cleaning. The following morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and watched the sunrise. It was at that time I heard God say, “It’s time to start thriving.”


I read Psalm 36:9. “They feast on the abundance of your house. You give them drink from the river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”

The terms abundance, river of delights, and fountain of life are not words of a mere survivor, these are the terms of a thriver.

Not too far from my home there is prayer garden at the gateway of a mountain preserve. A group of nuns care for this desert garden filled with meandering dirt paths that follow the various stages in the life of Christ. Benches are nestled in the shade of mesquite trees, and the paths are lined with desert vegetation.



In the desert, life is about surviving. The cacti here have thick waxy skin to prevent water loss and to retain water during the dry season and they are covered in sharp spines to keep predators away.



One of the trees that grow in this desert is a completely green tree called the Palo Verde. Every time I look at these unique plants I think of the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz because it’s that same funky green color that she was. This tree has tiny leaves that won’t be burned in the intense sunlight and heat and the green trunk and branches are full of chlorophyll to assist in photosynthesis. The common characteristics of plants surviving in the desert is their sparseness from lack of life giving water and nutrients like you would find in a lush forest.

At the end of the pathway in the prayer garden there is a fountain. This fountain has 7 drinking stations to represent different characteristics of God. Goodness, comfort, grace, faithfulness, Patience, and Mercy. The last time I was at the garden it was a warmer day. When I came to the fountain I sat and listened to the water. The fountain with its abundant fresh water struck me as frivolous. I watched birds perch on the cement ledge for refreshment. The sound of splashing water was noisy, blocking out cars driving nearby. I splashed my hands in the cool water. The contrast was striking between the spindly sparse leaves of the surviving desert and this frivolous fountain. The fountain still sat in the same desert environment but it was thriving. What would that look like in my life?


I will not live a life absent from hardship and strife but I want a life like a frivolous fountain in the middle of the desert.

I’m on a journey now to discover what it means to not just be a survivor but to be a thriver. And I’m starting here: Psalm 36:9 is about abundance but it begins before that in verse 7 and continues to 9.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.

My starting line for thriving is more trust in the God who never stops loving me and the God who is the fountain of life. I will not live a life absent from hardship and strife but I want a life like a frivolous fountain in the middle of the desert.

Tina D. Stephens

Author of  The Common Hours


Queen for a Day

Queen for a DayA fictional tale to celebrate mothers in the thick of raising a family.

The idea of Queen for a Day began with a text. I was leaning against an office cubicle browsing through emails on my phone when a message popped onto the screen, “I am now a member of the suspended kids club too” (followed by a smiley face emoji). There was only enough time for a quick response before I headed into a meeting.

Two months before, my daughter was suspended from school for her involvement in a fistfight in the lunchroom and the same week my son was arrested for possession of marijuana at school. Rumors were quickly getting out at school and at church; the pastor’s kids were messing up. At first I kept quiet about what was happening in our family. My husband became the pastor at the local church 2 years ago. It felt like we were finally settling into our new environment. I wondered what kind of an example we were setting for other families. After I received the text from my cousin about her son being suspended, I began to wonder how many other moms were in similar battles at home. It prompted me to start listening to other mothers at church and school. Sometimes, when I sensed an opening, I would share something about what happened in my family; often, in return, I would hear the heartbreak and guilt of their own struggles. The question I commonly heard was had we failed as mothers?

Like a quiet army of hurting mothers we found each other. We would cry, share, and give grace to each other. After awhile I realized this little sisterhood of mothers needed to laugh together and be encouraged to not give up. That is where the Queen for a Day idea was formed. We were headed into the holidays so I chose January 2nd  .Ten women agreed to participate in Queen for a Day.

On January 2nd I arrived 11am at ZinBurger in the Scottsdale Quarter. I reserved a table under one of the outdoor umbrellas near the fountains. A waiter came over to wipe down the tables and helped me slide two tables together. I added a pink feathery boa down the center of the table then sprinkled bits of fake diamonds all over the table. In the center I placed a white ceramic cake stand, covered it with a silky pink cloth and took a jeweled crown from the depths of my large purse that my children lovingly referred to as a suitcase.

Susie was, not surprisingly, the first to show up for the lunch. She was the ever-bubbly mother who always came ready with extra noisemakers and hats, which she hastily added to the table decorations. We hugged. Then Ashley and Carin came. Carin walked toward the fountains nearby to answer a phone call before joining us. Her forehead was creased. I was talking to Ashley when I noticed Mary walking toward us her eyes concealed under a floppy brim fedora. She looked up as she neared the group. As I was watching her I was thinking it was time to update my hat collection, “Mary, I love your hat.” She laughed softly, “All this holiday business and I didn’t have time to cover the grey roots”. She was the frankest member of our group. We were soon gathered at the table, all 10 of us engaged in noisy chatter. After the waiter took our orders and brought our drinks, we started the meeting.

Ashley shared first. “My worst holiday story was Thanksgiving dinner. My parents flew in from Chicago. They chose Thanksgiving dinner to share the news of their impending divorce. We have had a difficult, distant relationship for years but I was shocked at this. I tried to talk to them after dinner but they didn’t want to talk. I don’t know how to act as their daughter. I feel helpless. And how do I help my children deal with the break-up of their grandparents when I don’t even know how to deal with it?” Still composed but teary eyed she looked around the table. Not even a single tear had hit her cheek before every woman reached a hand toward hers. We didn’t say anything, just sat silently with her for a moment.

Carin spoke next. “My worst holiday story was actually New Years Eve.” As you all know Jarrod has skipped school so many times that he was kicked out of the district. We have enrolled him into an alternative school for the rest of the school year. On New Years Eve we had a small gathering with family. We watched ‘White Christmas’ and ate Carmel popcorn. I took the kitchen trash outside after midnight. When I lifted the lid of the trashcan I noticed something shiny in a nearby shrub. I was shocked to find a half empty bottle of ‘fire-ball whiskey’. I grabbed the bottle and marched through the side gate into the backyard. Jarrod was hanging out with his friends in the yard. Or at least that is where I thought he was. I texted him and fretted over whether to call the police. At 2:30 he came stumbling into the house clearly drunk.” Carin paused; she couldn’t go any further but dropped her head and cried into her arms. We all pushed back our chairs and rushed to her side. We swallowed her in a group hug.

Cassandra, usually quiet, broke from the hug first. “I’m ready to share now.” We all sat down waiting to see if Cassandra could one-up Carin’s story for the crown. “My story was also at Thanksgiving time. John’s family always comes in for Thanksgiving so they can spend Christmas skiing in Aspen. I worked very hard on this years’ dinner preparing what I thought was my best dinner to date. My mother-in-law commented to John that I could have purchased better sides at AJ’s Fine Foods. She commented how sad it was the younger generation wasn’t adept at cooking. I was so angry I could barely look at my mother-in-law the rest of the day. As I finished cleaning up dinner our new neighbor knocked on the door. He was informing us that our Labrador had gotten out of the backyard, tipped over our trash can and strewn it all over his front yard Christmas display. My in-laws watched the National Dog Show while the rest of the family picked up garbage.” Cassandra stopped abruptly. We all reached over to stack our hands on top of hers.

One after the other the stories were told. My own story was also a tale of family dysfunction over Christmas dinner. Many tears were shed, and hugs were given. When we all finished talking I quietly handed out small folded pieces of paper. Each one wrote a name down then placed it in the jar we passed around the table. Opening each paper, I glanced at the name written on them. Everyone was unanimous. I stood to reach for the crown in the center of the table. “And our Queen for a Day is—Carin!” All the women cheered and ran to hug and congratulate her. I placed the crown on her head. Today everyone else would pay for Carin’s meal. Then each of us told her why we valued her. The crease on Carin’s forehead relaxed.

It was the one day it was ok to outdo each other’s stories. It was a day we determined to share our heartbreak, look it in the face and choose to see our value as mothers. We were all Queens when we left to return home. I sent a quick text to my cousin “I need to tell you about Queen for a Day” (smile emoji). It was time to start a revolution.

I want to encourage mothers to listen to each other and be gracious so we don’t become isolated in our struggles. We need each other.

(I read about the “Queen for a Day” game in an online article about surviving the holidays with dysfunctional family.)

Tina D. Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

and the mother of 4 adopted children.

A Heart-Shaped Leaf: notes from an adoptive mother

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Last week my 18-year-old son came into the kitchen while I was fixing dinner. He held a closed hand in front of me. “Open your hand mom.” I looked up at his smirk.

“No”, I said. “I don’t trust you.”

He pushed his hand closer to me. “Come on mom, just hold your hand out.”



I put my palm under his closed hand my eyes half squinting in fearful anticipation of the contents.

His fist opened and a single leaf fell into my palm. It was shaped like a heart.

“I found it in the yard mom. Isn’t that cool?”

He grinned.

I remembered the wild-eyed boy who entered my life when he was 9 years old; now he was a young man. I promptly placed the leaf deep inside the pages of a favorite poetry book.

Recently my husband, oldest daughter, and I, were rehearsing similar kinds of moments in our unique family story. We adopted all of our children when they were 9 years old or older. One of our favorite memories is the day our oldest daughter and her brother moved in. About an hour after they came in the front door, our daughter asked my husband, “So, how do you like having me live here so far?” It was an innocent question from a young girl who could barely comprehend what was going on that day.

In the nine years since taking them into our home, 2 others have joined our family. The journey to become family has been messy. We are like clay pieces in a mosaic. Not all the pieces in a mosaic match and they are all broken, but the art is beautiful.

Not all the pieces in a mosaic match and they are all broken, but the art is beautiful.

When we finished rehearsing the memories that day our daughter said to us, “I adopted you too.” They were words I never want to forget. I want to always see beyond the mess and to never be consumed by it. Rehearsing those moments and preserving little leaves in a poetry book is part of that journey.

Tina D. Stephens

author of The Common Hours


The Great Misadventure of Summer 1985

The following is a relaying of events, which took place when I was 15. It is a completely one-sided tale and it is altogether possible that some details have become “stretched” with time; except for what happened in Plymouth, the day the photo was taken—

bradford family

It was 1985 the year Coke changed their formula and released new Coke, Microsoft released the first version of windows, windows 1.0, the single “We Are the World” was recorded by a charity in Hollywood, California for Africa, and “The Power of Love” hit the radio waves. But if you asked me what happened in 1985 I would tell you about our family vacation that summer. Years later that vacation would become the most talked about vacation at family gatherings and campfires.

The second week of July my brother, sister, and I sat in the back seat of a silver ’77 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme headed toward Massachusetts. Air conditioning wasn’t a thing when the Oldsmobile was built so we rode with the windows down. We siblings slouched on the black vinyl seats sometimes leaning against the little triangle side window or turning around to watch the road out the back window. The long forgotten lap belts were buried in the crevice of the back seat. Dad who wasn’t fond of pop music usually found Garrison Keillor on the radio or some old time country music. It was difficult to hear the music above the sound of the wind from the open windows. The radio would often lose reception and many miles would pass before dad realized we were listening to “fuzz”.

I would stare out the window at the clouds overhead or the changing scenery. Sometimes I put my hand into the wind and would dip my arm in swooping motions against the pressure of the wind or I would stick my face out, close my eyes and let my imagination take me on adventures.

Our first stop was somewhere on Cape Cod and dad found a cute motel that looked like a long cottage with many doors. Once we were settled into our room we siblings ran outside to look at the stream behind the hotel or to see what was in the vending machines near the front office. I was mortified when after clogging the toilet in our room, dad sent me to the front office, all by myself, to retrieve a plunger. The walk of shame across that parking lot with a plunger in hand felt like a mile. Maybe that was the first hint of trouble on this ideal vacation.

We spent the next day at a beach on the bay side of the Cape. My homemade red swimsuit sagged slightly when the cold waters of the bay soaked it. My head, neck, and mid arm to finger tips were tanned and the rest of me was white. The white parts of my skin would be red by the end of the day.

Near the end of the week my dad pointed the car toward Plymouth and things began to fall apart. Every hotel in the Plymouth area was full. The “no vacancy” signs glared red into the dark night as we drove along. Finally dad headed north toward Boston. The worry lines on my mother’s forehead were increasingly visible. It was hours past dark when we dragged ourselves toward an elevator at the end of a hotel building. I remember standing under a parking lot light and staring up at the multi story building in front of me. This was no cottage. It was beautiful and grand looking. Our room was on the 9th floor. As soon as we were in the room I walked to the window to see the view but not for long because we were all very tired. The next day was the one I had been looking forward to, our visit to Plymouth. I planned on waking up early so I could curl my hair.

The next morning we woke up late, or at least I did. I had to look perfect. My favorite outfit had been saved for this day. I had a grey pair of pants with white and pink pin strips and a pink blouse with white pinstripes that fluffed out from the waist in a peplum. Dad was already packing the car with our things and I had barely started curling my hair. I could hear him expressing his impatience to mother and I could hear her reminding him that we still had a ½ hour.

It was common knowledge in our family that when dad set a time to leave he would always want to leave ½ hour before the time that had been set. It was a point of constant contention with his teenage girls who needed every available minute to perfect their hair or press their clothes. Finally I was ready quite a few minutes after everyone else was ready.

Once we were all in the car, Mother gave us some canned tomato juice and a snack for breakfast. The rest of the day was spent touring. I had little camera bag strapped across my chest with a 110-film camera I had received for Christmas last year. I had dreamt about seeing Plymouth Rock and getting a picture of the rock on an isolated beach with the sun outlining the top corner. Plymouth rock was my biggest disappointment. We walk up a paved ramp to a covered patio and looked over a railing at a rock sitting on sand at the bottom of the cage. On the top of the rock was stamped 1620, the year the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. I couldn’t touch the rock, there was no isolated beach, and it turns out the whole think about the pilgrims stepping on the rock was a legend not based on facts. I snapped an obligatory picture and walked away with my family.


It was warming up outside, the sun bearing over us as we took a break on a bench facing the bay. My stomach growled and I realized it had been awhile since we had our tomato juice and snack for breakfast. We had walked past several restaurants. I noticed my parents looking at posted menus but we never stopped. The store windows were full of beautiful clothes and items from brands I had never heard of with price tags beyond my imagination. We didn’t know it at the time, but our fancy hotel had soaked up food money for the day, and Plymouth was very expensive for a family of 5. So we walked, and walked and walked. Tourist shops beckoned the few last dollars my sister and I carried with us. I was feeling hungry and cranky and so was the rest of the family. We were literally dragging our feet. Then it happened.


In the store window of a candy shop we saw a large box of salt-water taffy. It looked so good and my parents had enough cash for taffy. We sat on the bench near the bay again and shared the box of taffy. We devoured the entire box. With renewed energy we ventured into a free museum with air conditioning. By the time the tour was finished our energy from the candy had worn off and we were all slumping down into a sugar low. But dad had one more thing on his list. We had to see the statue of William Bradford and have our family picture taken next to it. By this time we were complaining quite a bit. We were past done for the day. When we reached the statue we propped ourselves up on the cement edges of the base of the statue and looked toward dad’s camera. He told us to smile. I thought we did but there wasn’t anything left in us. We were about to collapse. Dad put his camera away and we silently walked back to our car.

bradford family

The drive home to Pennsylvania was difficult. My brother threw up while we were stuck in traffic on a highway. We hit mile after mile of construction where the slow pace gave us no relief from the hot summer air. Then dad began driving fast in order to hurry home. Mom grabbed her seatbelt to buckle up and did it so quickly she pulled a muscle; she exhaled the name “James” with an air of aggravation. By the time we pulled into the driveway at home we practically fell out of the car onto the green grass of home. Mom and dad didn’t say a word to us. We all knew to take our own bags and go inside to bed.

Years passed without a mention of that vacation. Then one night after my sister and I were out of the house and married we were at home for a visit with the family. I think it was Christmas time. It was either my sister or I who said, “Do you remember the vacation where all we had to eat was salt water taffy?” After that, it became the most talked about vacation in the years to follow. We look at the picture and laugh at the predicament we were in. One glance of salt water taffy and we laugh or roll our eyes.

With a family of my own I can now relate to the difficulties of carting a household on the road and providing for them. Often vacations don’t turn out how we planned and we often come home exhausted and angry at each other. But sometimes the adventure comes when you look back on the memories. Events ripened over time either become comical or endearing. Life really is an adventure. Live. Laugh. And eat Salt Water Taffy along the way.

Tina Stephens

author of The Common Hours

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