About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. 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.

Honoring WWII Heroes

My father never talked about his experiences in the Navy during WWII until late in life. He was in his 80s when I learned he’d been on a destroyer off the coast of Normandy during D-Day and that his ship, the USS O’Brien, had been hit by a kamikaze pilot when the war shifted to the Pacific. He never glorified war or his role. Like so many men who served in WWII, he said that he hadn’t done anything special—he was just doing his job like everybody else.

WordSister Cynthia Kraack coauthored 40 Thieves on Saipan with Joseph Tachovsky, whose father Lieutenant Frank Tachovsky, led the elite Marine Scout-Sniper platoon known as the “40 Thieves.” The younger Tachovsky didn’t know the incredible scope of his father’s role until his father’s funeral, which sent him on a quest to learn more. In 2016, he came to Cynthia with hours of interviews with surviving platoon members, letters, and military research that he’d gathered.

During an informal interview with Cynthia I asked, “What was the story you wanted to tell?” She explained, “The book is a fairly accurate capture of the story I wanted to tell. Understandably, the old men he interviewed found it easier to talk about the lighter side of their Marine service—the jokes, the pranks, the exploits. They said a situation was tense without describing the conditions. Joe wanted to pay tribute to the men and we focused on a line of his father’s: ‘War makes men out of boys and old men out of young men.’ The 18-year-old who went to church with his family and had a last Sunday dinner at home before reporting for training would never come home. The man who came home would need time to rebuild his connection to living outside of war. I also found myself wanting to write a book that would help women understand war’s imprint on the men in their world.”

Last fall, I visited Omaha Beach and other sites associated with the D-Day invasion. Part of me understood that although I was hoping for a glimmer of Dad’s experience, I wouldn’t find it. There’s no way I could possibly understand what he went through. Maybe a soldier or sailor could, but not me.

I sensed that longing in Joe and Cynthia, whose father also served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater during WWII. As coauthors, their main focus in writing the book was to remember and honor the men known as the 40 Thieves. Ultimately, their work was personal, too. They hoped to gain insight into their fathers, access those younger men, honor and remember what they did. As coauthors, they have.

Uncertainty Is Its Own Trouble

This week, I expected to write about a reunion in Ohio with a handful of my graduate school friends. I haven’t visited with them in more than 20 years, because we live in five different states. I was eagerly anticipating seeing them in person. We would have unearthed long forgotten stories, laughed about our younger selves, and discovered who each of us is now. Last week, during the days we intended to gather, we emailed and expressed our disappointment along with our hope that we’ll be able to meet in the fall.

Uncertainty is its own trouble. Especially for a person like me, who thrives on planning and likes to take charge of my life. It’s even harder for people who are missing out on milestone events: canceled study abroad programs, postponed weddings, and trips of a lifetime on hold. For certain dreams, there’s no do-over.

I feel for anyone whose major life event has been short circuited by the pandemic. Those disappointments pale in the face of death from coronavirus, but it’s understandable to be depressed and frustrated by the loss.

Reading and watching shows about life during WWII is surprisingly comforting. From day to day, people in Great Britain and Europe didn’t know if they or someone they loved would be bombed, arrested, dead, or alive. Many days, just carrying on with ordinary life would be all anyone could manage. No doubt, some people couldn’t spare the emotional energy for dreaming of a happy future. But others projected all of their hopes to when the war was over and things got back to normal. The same way we do now.

These days, I remain hopeful for the future, but am learning to accept how much is out of my control. And always was. Tamping down my expectations is one of the lessons of the pandemic. I’m not planning too far into the future, not counting on anything unless it’s something that I alone can make happen, like writing, reading, laying out a new vegetable garden, or making a strawberry pie. I’m more at peace than I have ever been with taking each day as it comes.

Will I get together with my grad school friends in the fall? I hope so. If we can’t meet then, we’ll try again for next spring or summer.

Time Suspended

Ancestral Pueblo people, including the Anasazi, lived in the New Mexico cliffs for centuries. The view from one of their dwellings helps give me perspective about the pandemic.

Whenever I travel, time suspends at the airport. I’m not flying the plane. I can’t control the weather. I’m at the mercy of the airlines and TSA and whatever rules they impose.

So I wait. In limbo. Crowded into a row of airport seats, keeping my arms and legs close, pinned behind my roll-on suitcase. Listening to announcements. Unsurprised by delays. Constrained.

Onboard, I shoehorn myself into an airplane seat. And wait. Wait to be given a snack. Wait to be allowed to get up. Usually, I accept the waiting, don’t expect anything different.

Often, I relish the flight time. No one needs anything from me. I can watch a silly movie that I wouldn’t have bothered with in the movie theater. I read, write, or doze. Eat all of the snacks.

Like air travel, sheltering in place is restrictive—close quarters, limited amusements, and out of my hands. I wouldn’t have signed up for it, but now that I’m on this journey, borrowing from my air travel mindset helps me accept this limbo. For the most part.

Cosmic smooch

In flight and during quarantine, time suspends. After an indeterminate while, we will arrive, and time will re-engage. Life will start up in a new place.

Mental Whiplash

On February 19th, the snow was deep in our yard, and our alley was so rutted with thick ice that my car was forced to follow the deep track. Before my husband and I left for our three-week snowbird experiment in the Southwest, life seemed relatively predictable.

We are keenly interested in politics, so the Democratic primary in South Carolina on February 25 and Super Tuesday on March 3 (which included Minnesota) were on our minds. We voted before we left town.

We speculated about the outcomes as we hiked in the California desert among shaggy palms, Joshua trees, and giant boulders that are tumbled like toys in the foothills.

Less than 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the trailing presidential candidates ended their runs abruptly. Although the departures were inevitable, the timing was startling. The consolidation of candidates meant that my early vote was irrelevant. Like many, we were astonished by Joe Biden’s surge. When Elizabeth Warren exited a few days later, I was sad that there were no women candidates. The political landscape had changed dramatically, and the rapid change was jangling. However, COVID-19 felt remote.

In Tucson, our next destination, the desert was blooming. Clumps of yellow desert marigold dotted the hills that bristled with saguaro cactus. The sunny warmth of Sabino Canyon’s trails soothed me.

During the first week of March, concerns about COVID-19 came to the forefront for us. This was new terrain. Until then, sensible precautions seemed enough; our life hadn’t been disrupted. With each subsequent day, our understanding of the COVID-19 crisis increased as updates poured in faster than we could absorb them.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, which carried passengers ill with COVID-19, docked in Oakland. We worried about our son and his significant other, a physician in Oakland, who would be on the front lines.

The sky was overcast but the temps were still warm as we walked trails alongside the broad dry Rillito riverbed. I noticed spikes of pink penstemon, but our conversations centered around the looming pandemic and the conflicting national response. We worried about restrictions on flights from Europe where our niece was studying abroad and the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

By the time we flew home, the landscape was changing hourly with updates about cases and the CDC and NIH’s latest guidance. On our first day back, the president declared the overdue National Emergency. Comprehending the impact of the cascade of closings and event cancellations was hard. Is hard.

The pandemic is uncharted territory. Only a week ago, I wondered if I’d be able to fly to Chicago later this month for a wedding shower. Several days ago, meetings with my writer’s group and book group seemed possible. We’ve ruled out travel, in-person visits, and ordinary errands to help “flatten the curve.” The daily, even hourly, changes are like mental whiplash. No school. OK. Restaurants and stores with limited service. OK. Stay home. Got it.

March 18thIn the space of a month, so much has changed. The world looks very different. Socializing in person has been postponed. I no longer assume my travel plans for May and July will happen. We’ll see. We’re figuring it out, day by day, case by case, just like everyone else.

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At the moment, we’re healthy. The snow in our yard is nearly gone, and the alley is ice-free and dry. As I circle the yard, I note the early tulips and weeds pushing up in my gardens as they always have. Though much is unknown and I’m seeing the world with a new perspective, spring is coming, and for that, I’m grateful.

 

 

Still Winter (Don’t Read This Cranky Blog)

Let’s see. It’s still winter. I’m done with it, but it’s not done with us. No use complaining (but that’s not stopping me). Weather isn’t personal. The same rain/snow/slush falls on all of us. The same ice clumps chunk off our tires. We drive the same roads that are scabby with ice or as slippery as Crisco.

Impeachment rages on and on. We know how this will end but the players must follow the script anyway.

No wonder I obsess about clay. I revel in the small personal thrill of throwing porcelain for the first time in years. Voilà! A small vessel I hope to make into an old-fashioned perfume bottle. Not to hold perfume. Just because I like the idea of them.

Maybe I’ll make stoneware wine goblets next. The sturdy kind without stems. Or stoneware tumblers for iced tea and mojitos with fresh mint. Mint that I’ll pinch from a plant in next summer’s garden.

Why not stoneware flower pots? That’s genius! When I’m not a potter, I’m a gardener. I could bring together two of my passions.

What about platters and bowls with sayings? Hmmm. I hate art that exhorts me to Live! Love! Laugh! Shut up, I think, even though I do want to live, love, and laugh. Isn’t stamping Ellen-isms into clay at odds with that? Too bad. I’m doing it.

 

I’ve been holed up in the pottery studio with my potter’s wheel spinning fast. It corkscrews my focus tighter and tighter until all I see is the lump of clay that I’m forcing to be centered. Even though it resists, throwing off stray blobs and splashes of watery clay.

Hours pass. My back and shoulders ache.

Weeks pass.

Now when I leave the studio at 5:15, it’s light out. The big wheel of the seasons is also turning. Slowly, slowly, but turning. Bringing me back to center.