About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a workplace coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during my first year of college teaching. I write on topics of interest to working women, middle-aged mothers, Baby Boomers, people who love to read and write, and those who belong to writers' groups and book groups.

For the lady in the pink rain bonnet

I noticed you on a sunny, fiercely windy day outside of a Caribou coffee shop. In addition to your warm coat, you wore a plastic rain bonnet, which was covered with pink chiffon and tied under your chin. Under it, your white hair looked freshly styled, and the bonnet protected your hairdo from being blown to pieces. You had to be at least 85—rain bonnets like that were popular in my mother’s era, and she would be 98 if she were still alive.

My immediate reaction was, “Aww, how sweet!” Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I’d hate it if young people looked at me indulgently and thought, “Aww, isn’t she cute with her matching jewelry and sensible shoes!” while I was going about my ordinary day being my badass, 65-year-old self. So, I decided to spare her the stereotype that diminishes and infantilizes even though it’s kindly meant. I don’t know anything about her. She’d probably a badass, too.

While I was placing my order, she came in and looked around. She seemed uncertain and quickly returned to her car, which was parked near where I sat stirring my tea and waiting for my friend.

Later she came back in and sat at a table. “Uh oh,” I thought, “I wonder if she realizes that this isn’t the kind of place there they come over and wait on you?” I could imagine my mom being confused about how Caribou works. A few minutes later, two middle-aged guys with leather-covered notebooks joined the woman.

I told my friend why I was distracted. We watched the three of them for a minute.

“I hope they’re not scamming her,” my friend said, reading my mind.

“Maybe they’re just selling her car insurance. But why two guys?” I asked.

The lady didn’t look worried or out of it. She was probably perfectly capable of making her own decisions about whatever they were selling. I turned away, thinking, “It’s none of my business. I have an overactive imagination—the downside of being a writer.”

My friend and I resumed talking about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and my Thanksgiving travel plans.

Why did this stranger capture my imagination? She brought to mind how unsure my smart, confident mother became in her final years. The woman with the pink rain bonnet also made me contemplate how vulnerable I might be when I’m in my late 80’s or early 90’s.

I wish I felt certain the lady in the pink rain bonnet was OK.

Letting Go of What No Longer Serves Me

In the fall, I often attempt to bring a flowering garden plant indoors. I can’t quite let go of the joy of abundant, bright blooms. This rarely works. Nonetheless, I brought in a small fuchsia this year. I will fuss over it—move it to a sunny spot, water and fertilize it, but in a few weeks, it will be half-dead and I’ll throw it out. Letting go of summer is hard, but this gradual goodbye makes it easier.

In similar fashion, I age my correspondence. Mail piles up unread for a few days. Or a week. Or two. Then I realize I’m really not going to donate to all of those people. My email inbox is full of emails with links to newsletters or articles that sound interesting, like something I want to read. Except . . .  not right now. After a week, I feel guilty (or is it, more realistic?) Then weeding out my mail and email is easy.

There are also the shoes I’ve stored because I might wear those flats again. Or the yoga pants that never fit but I thought I might fix.

A meditation I recently read described fall as a time of weeding out and letting go. Trees drop their leaves, fields are bare, and people turn inward as it gets colder. But to me, fall is a time of abundance, harvest, and storing up. The conflicting ideas puzzled me until I thought about how discarding is easier when I allow a little time to pass.

Then I can let go of what no longer serves me, just as the meditation suggests. That’s how I’ve reconciled the paradox of abundance and paring back.

7 Things That Surprised Me about France

My recent trip to Paris, Chartres, Bayeux (near D-Day landings), and Versailles was wonderful. A lot has changed since I visited decades ago—much of it in good ways.

Building across from cafe where I journaled one afternoon.

1Parisiennes don’t mind speaking English.

When I visited France years ago, I would attempt my poorly accented high school French, and whomever I was speaking to would wince and reply in heavily accented, rudimentary English. Some people would shake their heads and speak rapid French in a scolding tone, which didn’t improve my understanding. Consequently, I downloaded several phone apps, including one that would say phrases in perfectly accented French, before this trip.

During our recent visit, my “bonjour” was met with a smile, and the person I was speaking to would offer to speak English. Young people, who often staff hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourist sites like museums, were particularly fluent and gracious. Some wanted to practice their English and make sure they were speaking correctly. Wow. I never used my French app.

2. American fashion was widespread.

I expected to be surrounded by stylish Parisiennes who wore the height of fashion. Instead, I blended in, especially on the days I wore my skinny jeans. My clunky walking shoes were also mainstream. Most women wore comfortable shoes like sneakers on the metro. Maybe they had dressy office shoes in their bags? The guys wearing t-shirts branded Levi’s or U.S.A. were native French speakers, not Americans.

The small hotel where we first stayed was quite a distance from popular tourist areas, so the people I saw on streets and in the metro were natives, not tourists. It was a little dispiriting to realize how pervasive American fashion is.

3. The scale and craftsmanship of “neighborhood” parish churches was astonishing.

St. Sulpice, one of the “neighborhood” churches we saw

We made brief visits to several neighborhood Catholic churches (my husband loves architecture). Inside were soaring Gothic spaces filled with intricate mosaics and stained glass windows, elaborately carved pulpits and choir stalls, along with altars and candelabra trimmed with gold. Some dated from the 1400’s. Many took several hundred years to complete. Along with the gilt-edged art and stained glass were announcements about parish activities—in other words, these are parish churches, not just historical sites.

4. Order and geometry reign in many French gardens and parks.

We wanted to spendlots of time outdoors enjoying the September sunshine so we visited several gardens and parks, and a distinct French gardening philosophy emerged. Nature is meant to be tamed and organized, preferably into geometric shapes. I expected that in famous formal gardens like Jardin des Tuileries and at Versailles. There, short, narrow boxwood hedges enclose long strips of flower gardens. Gardens are laid out in severe, straight lines, contrary to what’s natural. There’s grass between flower beds, but walking on it is forbidden!

At Versailles, even the trees are squared off.

However, that philosophy was also apparent in Paris’ ordinary city parks like Jardins des Plantes and Jardin du Luxembourg. A vegetable garden displayed espaliered gourds trained over arches to form a green tunnel. Trees were trimmed into rectangular boxes! Perhaps in Provence gardens are looser and more natural looking.

Shrub tortured into vase shape at Versailles

Espaliered gourds and cucumbers at Jardin des Plantes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Traditional French cooking was harder to find in cafes and bistros than I expected.

When I’d visited before, every meal I ate consisted of traditional French cooking—interesting sauces, tender meat or fish, and creative sides.

This time I was surprised at how often burgers with pommes frites appeared on menus, even when we weren’t in tourist areas. Whoa, I didn’t come to Paris for a burger! Or smoked salmon on a bagel. Perhaps Parisiennes get bored with traditional cooking and want something different. We did find several classic restaurants and ate wonderful meals there. No matter where we went, the bread, pastries, coffee, wine, and cheese were excellent.

6. My high school French resurfaced.

I expected to know food words like “poulet” for chicken and “fromage” for cheese. But after a few days, I began thinking long-forgotten words and phrases: “maintenant” (now), aujourd’hui (today), dejeuner (lunch), “moi aussi” (me too). I grew comfortable smiling and saying, “Je ma-appelle Ellen” (Myname is Ellen) to waitstaff who tried to hand credit card receipts to my husband for a signature. We were using my card since it waives fees on foreign transactions. And there’s all those miles, baby!

7. Apparently, there’s no end to the number of photos of stained glass I can take.

Well, that really wasn’t a surprise. Despite my limited faith, I love churches’ stained glass windows.

Bayeux Cathedral

 

Bayeux Cathedral

Squirreling It Away

I’m not a pioneer storing enough root vegetables to see my family through the winter. I don’t need to can tomatoes and beans or make pickles and jams that will last until next spring. Cub Foods is five minutes away, and they aren’t going to run out anytime soon. But the impulse to preserve the harvest seems to be encoded in my DNA.

Part of it is the pleasure of perfect ripeness—it all tastes to so good. Tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, and eggplant are tender and flavorful. Basil, mint, and cilantro are at their fragrant best. Sweet juicy peaches and crisp apples are delicious. I want to save all of those fresh, wonderful flavors.

Everything’s cheap, especially at the farmer’s market. How can I resist? Truthfully though, my urge to preserve isn’t really about saving money. By the time I’ve driven to a few farmer’s markets to hunt and gather . . . well, savings isn’t exactly the point.

Some of it is pure celebration. So many fruits and vegetables—a feast! There’s joy in the bounty. Someone (not me) planted, watered, weeded, and protected the crops, and Nature delivered again. It’s very reassuring. If you do the steps, food will grow.

After rhapsodizing about the pleasure of harvesting and preserving, you’d think I must be in a canning frenzy this time of year, but no. I like the idea of it, but I’m lazy. I’ll probably make and freeze a small batch of pesto that has the exact right amount of garlic. I’ve already frozen about 18 cups of ginger peaches—my favorite fruit. I can enjoy them when snow is on the ground and spring seems a long way off.

Something about those efforts satisfies my innate need to squirrel away food before winter.

 

A Closer Look

I’ve recently discovered the joy of flower arrangements small enough to fit in the clutter of my desk. A gift of an ikebana vase encouraged me to assemble pink and yellow snapdragons past their prime for the drama of a large vase, but fine in this setting. Since the petite vase is inches away, I see more details. To the right of the fading yellow flower are hopeful buds trying—as nature always does—to assert itself and establish another generation.

The blue ageratum, so short that it’s usually overlooked for most bouquets, holds its own here. Its exuberant fuzzy mop has lasted for days, and more buds are opening.

 I’ve never noticed the sweet florets of the white loosestrife behind the green spear of its leaf. More often I’ve meditated on its name—loosestrife. Loose strife? I inherited this unruly perennial with the house, and it certainly has loosed strife in my garden, mobbing and obscuring several large peonies. Yearly, I root it out, but it comes back. Up close, it’s so dainty, it almost seems innocent in its mute insistence.

And hosta, a determined survivor. Neither polar vortexes nor voracious bunnies can kill it, though sometimes I wish one of them would. In the yard, it seems so ordinary, but close-up, I’m struck by how graceful its cream and green leaves are and the way they mimic the loosestrife’s curve.

This miniature holds the persistence of strife loosed in the world but it’s outweighed by enduring delicacy, grace, and beauty. In that I find hope.