The PaperGirl “Leaders & Enders” Essay Contest: What You Made (and Second Runner Up)

posted in: PaperGirl Mailbag, Quilting 34
Me, at the Merchandise Mart, freakin' out. Photo: Mom.
What other photo could there be for this post but the one Mom took of me, reading your essays, freakin’ out. Photo: Marianne Fons.


This post is about the results of the first-ever PaperGirl “Leaders & Enders” Essay Contest. For all those of you who didn’t get around to writing, never fear; there will be future contests.

Which brings me to the first point I want to make in my opening remarks, before I announce the Second Runner Up. (That’s right: You have to wait till tomorrow to know who the First Runner Up is and the next day to know won the whole thing because it’s my contest and I’ll create tension if I want to. Also, this was getting really long.)

Over and over again — not in every letter but almost — came some version of the refrain: “Thank you for giving me a reason to write.” This essay contest/writing prompt was all a lot of you needed to do something you were clearly itching to do: write about your life. I’ll take credit for suggesting you put hands to keyboard (or pen to paper!) but those who wrote about their quilts and quiltmaking practice and sent it to me, that’s all you. You did the work. And you did it for you, but, as I said in the original contest announcement, you did something good for posterity, too. Writing your life is writing the history of you, your family, your time on this planet, etc., etc. It matters. As a person who is reading more and more (quilt) history all the time, I cannot tell you how important it is, how crucial it is, to have these personal accounts.

What my reading partner and I read in these sixty-or-so accounts is hard to describe without sounding dramatic and sentimental on account of the humanity on display. As we read, phrases such as “life’s rich pageant” came to mind, as did Thoreau’s observation about lives lived in quiet desperation. And then we’d laugh because one of you would be so charming, so fierce, so Unsinkable Molly Brown about it all.

There were essays about family. Mothers-in-law (the angelic, the not-so), sisters, granddaughters. Many of you have really wonderful husbands, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends. One of you had a very bad boyfriend who lied to you and hurt you terribly (but you win, because you’re a quilter and he’s not.) Some of you, like me, have quilted with your mom, while one woman has fought her whole life to “quiet [her] mother’s voice.”

We read tales of quilts that weren’t appreciated, while other quilts were loved till they were rags. Teachers, doctors, and cancer survivors wrote to the PaperGirl mailbox. Some of you volunteer in prisons and teach people who live there how to sew. Some of you live in London, Canada, the Netherlands. And two of my favorite people in the world sent essays: my friend Kater and my dear assistant, Carmen herself. You both said you figured you couldn’t be the winner, but to see your names and read your stories (both about your fathers, interestingly) made my heart swell with love and affection. You’re both very special to me.

Also: My mother made me promise to mention how PaperGirl readers and writers possess terrific penmanship and grammar and format letters beautifully. What an audience I have! You are intelligent people. As a group, you have class and excellent taste! I expected nothing less, but it was cool to hold the proof in my hands, to stuff all your tidy letters into my Modern Quilt Guild totebag. That said: Everyone needs copyediting and a second pair of eyes on a piece of writing. If worrying about crossing every “t” kept you from entering, don’t ever let that stop you again. If I publish your work here, I’ll do all that stuff. Don’t ever let a fear of not “sounding” a certain way stop you from participating in this sort of thing, okay?

And so, thank you. Every single one of you. Thank you for the lunch box notes and the book of poems. Thank you for the stickers, the drawings, the time you took. I loathe dead phrases like “Picking a winner was very difficult” but how else can I put it? It was terrible, in many ways, having to do this. And here I am telling you we’ll do it again, and soon.

Don’t stop writing. At the very least, whenever I prompt you to write an essay and send it, write it and send it. You have absolutely nothing to lose and perhaps fun prizes to win that come from my house.

And now…the Second Runner Up, with her phenomenal essay (condensed-for-space and copy-edited-by-yours-truly.) I’ll be sending you something good as a prize, Ms. Morrow; standby for that.

Second Runner-Up:
Kristina Morrow


About five years ago, I was asked by a dear friend if I had a bucket list. In my early fifties at the time and being a firm believer that every day after fifty is a gift, I’d actually given the matter some thought. 

“I’d like to make a quilt before I die.” 

Her response: “Oh! Eleanor Burns will be in town next month for a three-day workshop!!! We should go!!!” 

I said, “Who?”

We went. I learned to use the rolling cutter thing. I learned to press, not iron. I learned about UFOS. I dubbed it “Quilt Boot Camp” and I loved it. I fell in love with making quilts, which is good, because I was burned out in my career. 

I am a veterinarian. 

“Oh,” people say, “How lucky! I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I love animals too much.” Or, “Why didn’t you become a real doctor?” (It’s true: People actually say these things quite often — but that’s for another essay.) 

Veterinarians are often GPs, surgeons, OB-GYNs, dentists, ophthalmologists, proctologists, parasitologists, internists, nutritionists, and funeral directors, all rolled into one little degree. If the client has no money (or claims to have no money yet drives a much newer, nicer vehicle than ours), we’re expected to work for free because we love animals.

The sad truth is that veterinarians have a suicide rate six to eight times higher than the general population. I desperately needed a distraction and I jumped on quilting as a hobby. It’s become an obsession. 

In March of 2016, I had a heart attack, totally unexpected, and it seemed like a good time to take a professional break, catch my breath, spend time with family, and make quilts. I thought I’d miss medicine and be ready to go back in a few months. It didn’t happen. I don’t want to make life or death decisions anymore.

I’ve sold my practice and retired, broke and happy. 

I want to make quilts. I want to make quilts that mean something to someone; quilts that give comfort. Memory quilts. Quilts made from Grandpa’s flannel shirts, or Dad’s ties, or the baby’s clothes, or a decade of t-shirts. 

I have eight quilts I’m actively working on at this time for myself, friends, and family, but the one I just finished is significant. It just happened that recently I was perusing a veterinary suicide prevention site, and someone posted asking what other veterinarians do for relaxation. I posted a picture of one of my quilts. A veterinarian from a thousand miles away saw it and messaged me. She asked if I could turn her t-shirts into a quilt and I said I’d be happy to, for a fee.

My new business has begun. I have just finished turning her 27 t-shirts, one silk shirt, two scarves, a pair of pajama bottoms, and her graduation gown into a queen-sized quilt. It will never win a ribbon, but to this veterinarian, who has served in the armed forces (yes: a veteran veterinarian!), it will have meaning. And when she passes it on — I pray it will have meaning to those who love her — it will live on. And in a tiny way, I will live on. 

Mom, Thank Goodness. (Essay Contest Update.)

posted in: PaperGirl Mailbag 10
Mom, you, and the mailbag at the Merchandise Mart. Photo: Me.
Mom, you, and a few of the letters from the mailbag while at the Merchandise Mart today. Photo: Me.


This paragraph has been written and rewritten so many times, at this point, it’s just a line.

Because I’m speechless.

Today I picked up the PaperGirl mail. It was time to collect any stragglers for the PaperGirl Leaders & Enders Essay Contest and read all the entries.

Sixty of you entered the contest, which is to say sixty people took the time and energy to write their lives down on paper and then, as if that weren’t enough,* those people took the time and energy to stick that paper in a stamped envelope and send it across the country (or around the world in a number of cases!!) to someone who really, really wants to know. The life, love, sorrow, joy, and electricity in these letters has overwhelmed me in the best possible way.

And not just me, it turns out.

I didn’t plan to have a buddy in the review process, but it just so happens that my mom is in town today. Because I’m on a hiatus from TV, Mom and I haven’t has as much time together as we usually do, and we miss each other. When Mom learned I’d be in town at the big quilt show this weekend, signing books and giving tours (as opposed to being out of town teaching or in production for the school paper) she suggested she come in for a night to see me and go to the show with me. I yipped with happiness, and so it was that the one and only Marianne Fons arrived a little after noon today.

I was so happy to see the woman I nearly forgot I had my tax appointment this afternoon. When I remembered, I wailed. To have to go do taxes instead of hang out with Mom?? The fretting about that turned into fretting about all the other things that I want and can’t have, including a second me, a personal chef, and enough time in the day today to go pick up the PaperGIrl mail at the Merchandise Mart before the post office closed.

How quickly I had forgotten that the mighty Marianne Fons was in the room.

“Well, now, let’s see,” Mom said, looking at her watch. “I know where the Merchandise Mart is. It’s a quick train ride away, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I raised an eyebrow.

“Well, you go to your tax appointment — it’s important and won’t take too long — and I’ll go to the Merchandise Mart and get the mail. Just come to me when you’re done. There are good places to sit and work there and I have plenty I can do while I wait for you. It’s perfect!”

Pretty much, yeah. That’s Mom for you.

When I got to the Mart —I’ll tell you about the tax appointment another time — Mom showed me the huge bag of mail and I just couldn’t believe it. A big canvas totebag full of mail is truly my bliss. I dove right in and of course every letter I opened I had to tell Mom about. She was editing a friend’s manuscript and trying to concentrate but it only took a couple letters before we were both marveling and laughing and getting weepy and I said, “Mom, you’re in this thing, now. Get to reading.”

Sharing the stories with Mom made the whole thing sweeter. We both read everything. I hope you don’t mind the slight change in judging; the final decision is mine and I think it made the whole thing more fair, having a second pair of eyes. I’ve decided there is a winner and two runners up. That announcement and more on the essays — much more — to come.

You people. You people are extraordinary. And I think of everyone who didn’t enter!

*it’s enough