Missing Betty

Betty Sydow authored the first book published by Hidden Timber, a story written in a class, illustrated by her friend and artist Carolou Nelsen, and brought to life by our founder, Lisa Rivero.

Betty (left) and me (right) after a long pandemic separation.

Sometimes you don’t realize how long you’ve known a person until they’re gone, and you look back at old blog posts to find the words you’d written about her time and again and discover that it’s been ten years, which may not sound like a long time, but when you consider that you met when she was in her mid-80s, a good solid ten years is a lifetime. And yet, not enough time.

I can’t remember if Betty Sydow said she’d always wanted to write when she was young, but she wrote diligently for all of the classes I taught when I took over the writing group at Harwood Place in 2012. She was already losing her sight and hearing, so she wrote her stories and poetry (and a few excellent flash fiction tales!) with a black Sharpie on plain white paper. The first time she read her work at a podium, at Harwood’s very first Writers Showcase, she was nervous. (We were all nervous!) So before we began, as she took her place in her chair at the front of the room and residents and family and friends slowly filled the audience seats, I asked if I could get her something to drink. I thought, water. She said, gin and tonic. It was 1:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday. All I could offer was a cup of well-sugared lemonade from the refreshment table, and she said, Well, that will have to do. That little interaction settled us both.

When Betty wrote her story about Stanley the Sparrow, all of us at the table agreed it would make a great children’s book. From that moment on, Betty was determined. She partnered with her good friend Carolou, who created the illustrations, and I met with my friend Lisa, hoping I could at least get the story in book form. Even better, Lisa took the project on as her first to be published under Hidden Timber Books. Lisa, Betty, Carolou, and I worked for months rewriting, reworking images, reviewing proofs. For the release of The Adventures of a Sparrow Named Stanley, Harwood threw a huge party, complete with champaign and fanfare and a serenade from a fellow resident.

And Betty kept writing.

Kept delighting us with clever poems.

Kept inspiring us with insightful stories.

It was difficult for all of us to come back after a two-year covid hiatus wrecked our flow, especially Betty whose loss of vision blurred even the thick dark lines on plain paper. She was absent from our first post-pandemic meeting, but she showed for the next. And for several more after. I discovered Betty had continued writing even while we were unable to meet, and she let me share her poem about poetry that speaks to her quiet, creative, determined spirit.

Some Poems Demand To Be Heard

by Betty Sydow

The writing group is postponed once more.
But poets always keep words in store.
To rhyme for any occasion–
And do so with little persuasion.

The writing closet in my mind
is just the place where I can find
words and phrases soon to be
starring in my poetry.

They all fly off that closet’s shelf.
My poem writes itself.

There is an unspoken understanding when I meet with the writers at Harwood: that our time together may not be long, that we may witness each other in decline. So we focus on the work, share as many stories as we can, quicken the connections, fill the reservoir. But no matter how prepared you think you are, loss is loss. When the news breaks, it always comes as a surprise.

Now I’m up too late, trying to find the words to end this post. And maybe that’s just it: I don’t want it to end.

Thank you, Betty, for every minute, for every story.

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