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Question of the Week: Telling Mom

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This may just be the most sensitive question for writers. Is your mom proud of you? Do you let her read your work? Does she even know you write?


Wednesday’s guest, Eric Spitznagel, tells his story of writing screenplays for porn movies … and what it was like tell his family!

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  • Darby
    November 13, 2006

    My Mom knows I write and she’s proud. I think she’s always secretly wanted to be a writer. She tried to publish some children’s books years ago. I’ve got a good Mom.

  • Mark Bastable
    November 13, 2006

    The only piece of advice to which I have ever paid attention came from my mother when I was a small child, and it was this:
    Tolerate not one single superfluous word.

    To which I replied: I think you’ll find that you can do without ‘single’ in that sentence.

    My mum always encouraged me, praised me, told me how utterly brilliant I was. But she also offered criticism. She was very big on editing. And she came down hard on weak adjectives. She also liked stories that subverted expectations.

    When you’ve been getting advice like that since you were five, it stays with you. I am half-conscious that the editing voice in my brain is my mother’s. “Is that paragraph really necessary? What’s that chapter for, dear? It’s just not a very strong idea for a book, if you’re honest, Mark, is it?”

    My mum is very proud of me. I don’t think she entirely gets what I’m writing these days (she prefers my early, funny stuff), but though I may have travelled to creative places that are foreign to her, I am there only because, when I was setting sail, she made little adjustments to my direction that in a journey across the ocean make the difference between, on one course, bumping into a continent you can explore for the rest of your life or,on another course, missing landfall completely and sailing onto oblivion.

  • Robin Slick
    November 13, 2006

    Sob…I can’t answer the Lit Park question this week. My mom died when I was young and I’m afraid if I substitute my father, I will launch into a horrible diatribe about how he fucked me up by telling me I sucked at everything I did.

    Wait. Maybe that’s why I am a writer.

    Gee, thanks, Dad. (Wow. I finally do have something to thank him for, other than his gifted musical genes which alas skipped me but I passed on to my kids)

  • Anneliese
    November 13, 2006

    Robin – you have my story! 🙂

    My mom died when I was three, my dad the same as Robin describes above.

    I feel that my mother would approve, as her family is science & arts minded.

    My dad can tell his own story about how he feels about me writing…when I told him my decision to return to school to complete a creative writing degree, he asked, “Why not a Technical Writing degree? I know they offer that and you’re guaranteed an income.”


  • Betsy
    November 13, 2006

    Yeah, my mom died before I had written my best stuff, or published anything, so I wonder quite a bit whether she’d be proud. I like to think she would, but I’ve written fictional versions of her many times that are – I hope, loving and accurate to my memory, with allowances for fictionalization. (Relatives and friends of hers have not expressed anything but admiration, thankfully.) The story I like to tell as often as possible is that when she was still alive, when I would read her bits that were about her, she’d crack up and then she’d say “Am I always going to be a character in everything you write?” And I said “If you keep giving me material, yeah.” And she’s continued to do so from beyond.
    My dad, I’d like to say, is extremely proud, which makes me really, really happy and verklempt.

  • Jim
    November 13, 2006

    My mother died before I started writing. She had to quit school at age thirteen (eighth grade) to work in a pencil factory to help support her family. But she loved books, loved reading, and worked in the town library later in life.

    Ther is no doubt. She’d have loved that I write, although, as a devout Methodist, she may’ve had concerns about foul language my characters sometimes use. She’d trust me about that, though, I think.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    November 13, 2006

    My 83-year-old mom is proud of me to the point that she carries my foreign editions around in her purse to show people at the bank, hairdresser, various doctors’ offices and diner. But she can be critical too and I suspect she doesn’t love all the sex in some of my books.

  • mikel k poet
    November 13, 2006

    I haven’t seen my mother in 30 years. I left “home” when I was 18 and I never went back. I’m sure that she shares the attitude that my father had, when he was alive, that I am a loser who will never amount to much. She has never seen any of my writing and could care less that I write. Rush Limbaugh is her God. It is funny that my children worship me and my parents thought that I was a piece of dog shit.

    In her defense, alcohol was more important to me than my mother was, when I split “my father’s house” at age 18. The nuclear family is not always leave it to beaver for all of us. I was lucky to find family later in life when I layed the bottle down upon the birth of my son. I don’t hate my mother. She is what she is. I do still bear a bit of a grudge for her telling my son’s mother that she “wanted nothing to do with that little illigitimate bastard,” when my son’s mom called my mother to tell her about the birth of my boy. A good Catholic attitude? I mean fuck her, really!! No, she’s not proud of me. And,no, she doesn t read my “work.”

  • Julie Ann Shapiro
    November 13, 2006

    My mom doesn’t get my need to write or how I wound up with that drive. I take after my grandma. She loved poetry and instilled that love of beautiful language. Mom is proud of my accomplishments but mostly doesn’t get where ideas come from or how I can write a whole story and find this other world.

  • Julie Ann Shapiro
    November 13, 2006

    I forgot to say, she doesn’t read my stories. Once in a while it might happen, I suppose, if I insisted on it. Like with my first novel draft I really wanted to see her reaction and she offered helpful insight. The thing she doesn’t get is that it went through a gazillion drafts and how I have the patience for that and my other novels or the industry in general.

  • Jordan
    November 13, 2006

    What a fantastic (and juicy) topic, Sue.

    I’m lucky as far as mothers go. Despite being a heavily practicing alcoholic and addict for the first 20 years of my life, my mother is a wonder. She’s 12 yrs sober, committed to 2 very intense years of therapy with me just a couple years ago (I’m in my 30s if this gives any of you a clue of how brave she is) and has taken unflinching looks at her own darkness. She’s read just about everything I’ve written and she’s deeply proud of me, even when it makes her look bad.

    I gave my graduate lecture on the topic of recurring themes in our work. My mentor teacher, Alice Mattison, said that my stories added up to “a scream of rage about mothers” (had to exorcise it somewhere, I guess). Though she assured me she wouldn’t assume this stemmed from my childhood.

    I said the scream of rage was to drown out the sigh of neglect when it came to my father 😉

  • amy
    November 13, 2006

    Er, this question hits close to home for me. My mom knows I’ve written a novel, but she has absolutely no idea what it’s about. It’s probably childish of me, but I worry that if she criticized my work, it would paralyze me, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore. Her opinion just means too much to me.

    Not to mention all the sex, drugs, etc. in the book. I’m not quite ready for her to see that side of me (although I’m confident that I will be ready by the time I’ve found a publisher).

    So in the meanwhile, she panics that the book must be about her, since otherwise why would I hide it? (For the record, it’s not even slightly about her.)

    *sigh* I try to reassure her, of course, but it’s hard without telling her what the book *is* about.

  • Gail Siegel
    November 13, 2006

    I hid my writing from my mother and father for many years.

    I come from an artistic family and am hyper-aware of my mother’s tendency to trash excellent artwork. Amy Hempel is my second cousin, and my mother has always been unkind about her work, while I love it. I have two first cousins who are magnificent artists (Susan, can you help me out by posting a painting from and my mother, again, has been publically supportive but privately nasty about their work. Why would I want to subject myself to her two-faced critiques?

    (By the way, in other ways my mother is a lovely person. Books are her passion, as they are my father’s. They campaigned for year to have a library built in our town, and then expanded. My father was the elected chair of the library board. There is a room dedicated to my mom there. She makes paper, binds old books by hand, et. There is a room dedicated to my grandfather in the Brighton Park library in Chicago, with his half-bust on the wall.)

    So, until I went back to school for an MFA I didn’t tell them about my work. I only did it then because I needed them to help out with kid stuff. It’s 6 years later and I’ve only shared a few things — Lost on Purpose, the Night Train with Utopians in it.

    My 3 sibs know, however, and have read much of my work. As have the artistic cousins (big supporters). As it happens, I went to Bennington for my MFA where Amy Hempel was my teacher. I love her more than ever.

  • J Erwine
    November 13, 2006

    My mom knows I write, and she’s very proud of the fact.

    However, no, she no longer reads my stuff because she just can’t understand how her nice little boy could write such disturbing material…

  • Amy Kiger-Williams
    November 13, 2006

    I have a similar situation as Amy’s — my parents always assumed I’d be a writer, but my mother was rather nosy when I was a teenager and she read pretty much everything I wrote and protested very loudly about it. Everything I wrote seemed to make her angry, disappointed or upset. As far as my parents go, it’s as if I am writing under my blankets with a flashlight and stashing everything under the mattress.

    My great-grandmother wrote religious poetry. When I was a child, everyone told me that I got my love of writing from my grandmother. However, our subject matter could not be more different.

    I am sure she’d be proud of me if I let her see that side of me, but I am still uncomfortable letting her into that part of my world.

  • Pearce Hansen
    November 13, 2006

    My Mom’s aware that I write, but, as I have no contact with my biological family (for the best, I assure you) I have no idea what her attitude toward it is.

    I HAVE a family, and a lot of friends, but I chose them all, they aren’t “accidents of blood.” THAT family is very proud of my writing, and supports me fully. That’s all I need.

  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    November 13, 2006

    My mother always seemed amazed and baffled by my accomplishments. Not because she didn’t believe in me, but because she didn’t believe in herself. Her dreams were shattered at such an early age that she could not foster hopes for high accomplishement in her children.

    We both grew through the years to the point that when I began writing, she was my greatest fan. I am so grateful that she read my first novel THE NEXUS before her untimely death in 2003. I still get a huge smile on my face when I remember what she said when she read the title on my manuscript. “Before I read this, just tell me, ‘does a Nexus have horns?'” She loved the book and told everyone about it–even when she lay dying in the hospital.

    Thanks for this question, Susan. You seem to have a cosmic link into what’s boiling around in my head. Two weeks ago I began a new project, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel that explores how parents unwittingly use their own faults, failures, and fetishes to build the skeleton of the people we become.

  • Aimee
    November 13, 2006

    My Mother appreciates my joy in writing. She wants me to be happy.
    Is she proud? Not yet. She’ll be proud if she can walk into a bookstore and see my name across the cover of a book. She’ll probably make sure everyone in the store knows that I’m her daughter.
    As far as reading my work, no she doesn’t. I have a hard time sharing what I write with people I know. Probably because there are so many grains of truth in my writing and I don’t always want to disclose my feelings, especially critical feelings, to people I love.

  • Ric Marion
    November 13, 2006

    My Mom, oddly enough, doesn’t read books. Friends will send her copies of my newspaper columns and she’ll comment. She knows I’m writing full length fiction and knows I’ll share when the time is right.
    When I was twenty, my Dad suggested sales as a way to make money and create those extra hours to write. Smart man, who always had a book around.
    Mom continues to be supportive – and I worry not a bit about what she might think.

    Great topic, Susan. I try to remember, every day, how fortunate I am to have an intact family, with brothers who care and parents who did their very best to make it that way.


  • robert westfield
    November 13, 2006

    My mom has always been supportive, having taught me to read and encouraged me to tell stories at a young age. She’s very proud of the publication of my first novel, though not entirely thrilled with the mother character. In fact, I’m about to return to southern Maryland, a home I haven’t visited in years, to teach in the schools and read at a college, but the last thing I’ll do before taking the train back to New York next Monday night is to have dinner at the Olive Garden with twenty women–my mother’s book club.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 13, 2006

    Hey lovely ones,

    If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to read all these responses tonight. My father-in-law is visiting, and I’ve hardly gotten to my computer. When I have, he’s standing nearby and says things like, “If you let me sign into my yahoo account, I’ll show you a funny animal video someone emailed me.” This was the week I was supposed to get lots done, but I forgot to record this particular visit on the calendar and it’s all kind of a surprise. I’m drinking a scotch right now.


  • Sarah Roundell
    November 13, 2006

    Another great question of the week and so many different responses so far. When I began to write in my early teens my mom found my notebook and gave me the third degree about what I was writing, so I got better at hiding the sensitive stuff. She’s proud of writing I did in school, but after she wigged out so easily I’ve never felt comfortable enough to share the things I’ve written on my own. I’m more willing to let strangers read what I’ve written anyway because it’s easier to take what they say with a grain of salt.

  • Lance Reynald
    November 13, 2006

    tipping a Jack to your scotch.
    seems I too fall into the common thread with half the writers here…in one form or another.
    Mom hit the road when I was small then died a few years ago. Taudry romance novels were her thing…if she were still around at all I doubt my writing would be her Genre; and she might not be pleased with the characters she might inspire. Dad has had a mutually antagonistic role…
    these days friends and family are of my guarded choosing; most are dear to me but very few of them read my work. They are certain I MUST be talented and are somewhat proud of that; but the actual work I can’t seem to interest them in.

    time to freshen the ice in my drink.

  • Noria
    November 14, 2006

    My mother, who’s given me some of my best material, has been an incredibly good sport. She’s read it all and she’s proud. She doesn’t confide in me much anymore though, and when she does she says, “If I tell you this, you absolutely cannot write about it.”

    How curious that many of us here have lost a parent; I’m in that club too. My dad died shortly after I began working on my story collection. James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio, has remarked that the single-most thing the actors he’s interviewed have in common is the death of a parent. Perhaps the same is true for writers.

  • MOM
    November 14, 2006

    Susie, Your mom is proud of you–you have opened up the world for me.

  • Sarah Roundell
    November 14, 2006

    aww… how sweet is that…

  • Daryl
    November 14, 2006

    Yes, my mom knows that I write but I do not let her read what I write. Once I effing get something published I will let her read it, of course! 😉 She secretly wishes she were a writer too. Hmmm, maybe I only secretly wish I were a writer… She is the one who nurtured the love of books and libraries that I have… Earliest happy childhood memories are of being in libraries with her. And hey! We still hang out in libraries together…

  • Ellen Meister
    November 14, 2006

    I have to start by saying your mom’s comment made me cry.

    Anyway, my own mom does indeed read my work and thinks I’m a genius. In fact, I could write a laundry list and she’d think it was God’s gift to literature. My dad is pretty much the same way. I know I’m lucky, but there’s a harsh flip side to this, which is that praise–as much as I crave it–always feels false to me, as if I’ve somehow tricked the person into thinking I’m good. I live with this constant rumbling of fear that someone will eventually expose me for the fraud I am. That’s why I crumble at criticism.

  • Juliet
    November 14, 2006

    Growing up, my writing was very, very shamed. My parents were business people, very straight and bottom lined. For them, all my words and the insatiable need to see them take form on paper was frightening. I think they feared that I would get lost in a world they knew nothing about.
    The punishment for wasting time writing was sometimes harsh (notebooks thrown into the fire, etc.).

    And yet, I remember clearly my Mother scribbling poetry on little pieces of receipts and chequebooks; hiding them deep in her purse.
    I have no idea what she wrote.
    I once wrote a story about that. Perhaps I’ll post it on my site some time soon.

    When I ran away from home, (after the years of torment and agony) I met up with a “new” family. My now-Mom, as I call her, not only encourages my work, but reads it and does some of the best editing.

    We come from two very different worlds, and yet she can reach across my words to find something not of fear, but an opening into somewhere she’s never been.

    It soothes many wounds.

  • Juliet
    November 14, 2006

    Wow. Do you realize how many of us have either lost our mothers, or they never had us in the first place?

    That is such sorrow.

  • Aurelio
    November 14, 2006

    My mother died of cancer when I was only seven. I don’t recall if she ever commented on my writing, but when I was in my twenties I discovered a stack of drawings I’d done for her when I was just a tiny tot – at about two or three years old. She had them neatly bundled in a string way down in the bottom of her hope chest.

    We were a very large family, and she had little keepsakes from all of us kids, but mine were the only bundle of drawings in there.

    She had written across the top one, “My artist.”

    I had just become a professional artist at the time, and the only one in the family to pursue art professionally. How my mother could predict this when I was only two really blew my mind.

  • Susanna
    November 14, 2006

    Aurelio, your story brought tears to my eyes from both your perspective and that of my own mothering. Mikel, if your kids idolize you, I’m sure they have the correct perspective.

    This is a great question! My family knows I write and have written since I was a child. My father, who was a journalist and wanted to be a writer, has read one essay of mine, which he said “was interesting.” My sister asked to read my memoir ms, then said she was “too busy at work” to read it. My mother has never asked to read or expressed interest in anything I read — she mainly reads self-help books that don’t seem to help her or TV book club picks, and I’m on neither list. Yet when I was a finalist for an award and mentioned it to her off-hand and belatedly, she was so hurt and angry that I hadn’t told her sooner, that she didn’t speak to me for a week, so somewhere I think she is proud.

    I did a reading last year and sat at a table with the family of one of my (50-something) colleagues. They asked if my family couldn’t make it, and I hated to confess that it hadn’t even crossed my mind to invite them. My writing family exists, but they’re not related to me by blood.

  • patry
    November 14, 2006

    The dedication to my novel reads like this:

    “To my mother, quite possibly the best person on earth.”

    How could she not be proud of me?

    p.s. Great thread as usual. Aurelio’s comment made me cry.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 14, 2006

    Well, first, I just want to say I have the best mom.

    And now let me get to the rest of the comments.

  • Susan Henderson
    November 15, 2006

    Darby – It’s great to have you here. I wonder how many of us have mothers with the insight and talent and desire to write but, for whatever reason, that option was never opened to them?

    Mark – Ha! Classic Bastable!

    Robin – I didn’t know that about your mom. And it makes me so mad to think anyone would be mean to you. Although, I agree, it’s your mix of funny and vulnerable and compassionate that makes you the coolest.

    Anneliese – Aw. These are heartbreaking stories.

    Betsy – Unreal how many of you lost your mothers. I bet she’s proud of you so you can be doubly verklempt.

    Jim – Have you written about the pencil factory? I would like to read that story.

    Lauren – I love your mom.

    mikel k – It’s a wonder you have the compassion and insight that you do. You’re like those trees that grow up through sidewalks, even though no one’s tended to them.

    Julie – How wonderful that you and your grandma could share that artistic bond that maybe your mother doesn’t get.

    Jordan – Wow, if committing to 2 years of therapy with you isn’t love, I don’t know what is. I admire you so much for allowing the scream of rage to grow into something deep and mature. Both the rage and what follows it are important.

    Amy – This moved me so much, I’m just going to re-post it: “I worry that if she criticized my work, it would paralyze me, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore. Her opinion just means too much to me.”

    Gail – You have so many talented cousins, but you’re my favorite!

    Here’s the Zoe Kaufman link and here’s one of the paintings:

    J – Some of the nicest people write the most disturbing work. They’re just not afraid to turn away.

    Amy – Isn’t it devastating when people try to reign in the content or emotions of what you’re compelled to write? The worst thing that can ever happen to a writer is to get that kind of voice in their head that makes them afraid to go all the way with their idea.

    You’re the second person that mentioned being afraid of your mother seeing a hidden side of you. I’ll talk about that on another day because it strikes a chord with me.

    Pearce – I get chills when I hear of people who have been beaten down and somehow they still have those instincts to find good and loving people. I’m glad you have a new family looking after you.

    Carolyn – Aw, this made me cry, thinking of your mom telling all the hospital staff about your book as she’s dying. She raised a good one. Your new book interests me very much. I’ll be happy to look at the ms when it’s ready.

    Aimee – I know that feeling of not feeling like your writing has worth until it’s on the front table at B&N.

    I hear you about fearing the people you love would be upset by the feelings you expose. But if writers only wrote like Debbie Boone, we wouldn’t want to read or write anymore.

    Ric – Yeah, it’s really humbling to hear about the kinds of hell I didn’t have to experience growing up, and good for you for remembering to be fortunate.

    Here, I’ll run your website address again in case people want to click and see:

    robert – You have to come back and tell us about the book club dinner at the Olive Garden!

    Sarah – They say never write as if your mother’s looking over your shoulder or – how does it go? – you’re like a surgeon who’s afraid to cut? Hmm, I think have that quote wrong but I know you understand what it’s saying.

    Lance – Here’s to those adopted family members again! Okay, go write, you, because I want you to hit your deadline.

    Noria – I wonder if those of you whose parents died at a young age would like to have some sort of discussion between you that I can post on LitPark. If anyone’s interested in doing that, find the others in this thread and see what interests you.

    MOM – This is the sweetest thing. Thank you. xox

    Sarah – Isn’t she awesome?

    Daryl – Maybe there’s a story to mine with those memories in the library?

    Ellen – Me, too. And how great to have the kinds of parents who’d find brilliance in your shopping list. Do you remember that long talk we had on the train from Penn Station that one day? I still remember the stories you told about all this.

    Juliet – Notebooks thrown into the fire?! God, it’s like burning someone’s soul. I’m sorry. Let us know when you post that story on your site.

    Aurelio – “My artist.” That’s the most beautiful story. Have you ever thought to make an animated short about it?

    Susanna – Isn’t it hard when you’re surrounded by folks who aren’t really readers? Or not the kind who’d naturally be your audience? Because there’s that barrier there.

    Patry – That’s awesome.

    Anyone who’s sent me mail – I am at least 100 behind still. I’m sorry. I haven’t had the time and will but it may be a while.

  • Noria
    November 15, 2006

    Sue – That’s a great idea. I just sent an email out to everyone who talked about the death of a parent, except for Annaliese, whose contact info I don’t have. Annaliese – if you’re reading this – would you like to take part in that discussion?

  • Grant Bailie
    November 15, 2006

    My mom died before I ever published anything, but she was proud of me wanting to be a writer, I think, and I am sure was quite instrumental in getting me that typewriter I wanted for my 13th birthday.

    My first book is partly about her, in fact. As is my second. As is my third.

  • Shelley Marlow
    November 15, 2006

    My mom is a constant reader. When I was growing up, I’d sit in the living room and read my mother’s collection of books. The living room was where they entertained, with a round glass table with driftwood candle holders in the center that my favorite uncle Dave built,and some of my father’s sculptures, and some of my mother’s paintings. I still have her complete Shakespeare book and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I remember also reading her copies of Poe, and Boccaccio’s The Decameron.
    She tells me she loves my writing. She’s read excerpts that have been published from my first book, Lesbians of Arabia. She said she loved the sex scenes because it gave her new ideas!

  • Shelley Marlow
    November 15, 2006

    Oh and Mercury goes direct this Friday.

  • Kevin Noel Olson
    November 15, 2006

    Most of the material I’ve had published is relatively tame. Not very much concentration on the less honored subjects like sex and gruesome violence. Not that I’m frightened of that, but I believe Lovecraft when he suggests what is suggested is much more psychologically impactive than what is graphically displayed.
    The presumption here is that the reader probably has a vivid imagination, and as a writer it is often preferable to allow them to use it. Like the shower scene in Psycho that shows nothing but suggests brutality. Hitchcock couldn’t have bought the effect and footprint it leaves on the mind of the viewer with a twenty-million dollar special effects budget. The writer’s job is to cause the reader to experience the environment and the emotions. No amount of great writing can achieve that better than the reader’s own mind does.

  • josh kilmer-purcell
    November 16, 2006

    my mother had no idea until some nosey blogger came along and…

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    November 16, 2006

    “Lauren – I love your mom.” I’ll bet she’d love you too!

  • Susan Henderson
    November 16, 2006

    Noria – Thanks so much for gathering everyone together. Now my blog won’t have an opening till the new year so take your time and have fun with it.

    Grant – How come I haven’t read your third book?

    Shelley – What a wonderfully artistic household you grew up in. And how great that your mother loved the sex scenes in your book!

    Shelley, Jordan – What does it mean when Mercury goes direct?

    Kevin – The Hitchcock shower scene is a great example. I’m glad for both kinds of writers – those who know how to use subtlety and those who can take you somewhere fierce without blinking.

    Josh – Hee. If anyone missed the surprise interview with Josh’s mom, just click on the Kilmer-Purcell link to the right.

    Lauren – : )

  • […] Your answers to the question of the week are so heartstopping-beautiful, I hope you’ll go back to Monday’s Question of the Week and read every last one. Thank you to all of you who played or who considered playing. And thank you to Eric Spitznagel for giving me the idea for the question. […]

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    September 9, 2010

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  • Weekly Wrap: Our Mothers
    September 10, 2010

    […] answers to the question of the week are so heartstopping-beautiful, I hope you’ll go back to Monday’s Question of the Week and read every last one. Thank you to all of you who played or who considered playing. And thank […]

Susan Henderson