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.

What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Olga*, 42, was an architect in the Ukraine and now she is a homemaker. Gina, 28, was a civil engineer in Venezuela and now she is a server. Deqa, 32, was an accountant in Somalia and now she works as an assembler. When I tutor these adult English Language Learners, I often consider what it would be like if the situation were reversed and I were the immigrant. What work could I do?

I’ve made my living as a writer and a teacher—work that requires a good command of the language, both written and spoken. As a marketing communication writer, understanding connotation (e.g., ‘cheap’ vs. ‘inexpensive’) and nuance (e.g., the perspective of suburban mothers vs. that of urban mothers) were key to being persuasive. Since project management was a big part of my work, I developed schedules and budgets and coordinated the efforts of several other team members.

As a teacher, I’ve needed to use clear, simple wording and examples that would help someone comprehend a word or concept. I’ve had to be quick with alternative explanations, too. When I tutor immigrants, I am also teaching American culture as well as English language so I must remember not to make assumptions about anybody’s worldview or beliefs.

If I lived in Ukraine, Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, Thailand, Ethiopia, Vietnam, or any of the other places my students come from, I wouldn’t know those languages and cultures well enough to make a living as a teacher or writer. My M.A. in English would be irrelevant, just as Olga’s, Gina’s, and Deqa’s degrees are.

When I review my non-language-based skills, my list is short and sounds like the work my students do: cooking, cleaning, factory work, or stocking merchandise in a store. With time and a bit more knowledge of language and culture, I could take care of children or infirm adults. As my language improved, perhaps I could be a sales clerk, wait tables, or drive a cab.

But professional work in which I use my communication, analytical, and organizational skills would be closed to me. What also would be lost to me is the respect that goes with having a professional career. If I were an immigrant with poor language skills, most people would assume I was stupid and uneducated—nothing more than the cleaner or babysitter I appeared to be.

If I were an immigrant, I wouldn’t want to be pitied for the challenges of learning a new language and culture (and neither do my students). I would have chosen to emigrate. Or maybe I’d be a refugee who didn’t want to leave but needed a safe place to start over. Either way, before I moved, I would have been aware that it’s hard to learn a new language and work in a foreign country—the bare minimum needed to survive. If I missed my homeland, was lonely, felt disrespected, or experienced outright hostility, it would be mine to deal with. In time, I could hope that safety, security, and a better quality of life would come.

When I work with student immigrants, I keep in mind that it’s hard to do what they do, even though they chose it. I admire their grit, persistence, ability to work toward long term goals, and overall resilience. I wonder if I would have the same qualities if I were starting over in a new country?

*All names have been changed to protect student privacy.

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The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

Thinking About Good Friday

 

Tomorrow is Good Friday, an important day in the Christian Holy Week, which culminates in Easter Sunday, but I won’t be going to the services. Although I have spiritual beliefs, I am not an active participant in a formal religion. It’s odd to feel the pull of a religion I no longer practice.

As a Catholic grade-schooler, on Good Fridays, I spent the hours between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. in church in a vigil with Jesus while he suffered on the cross. Even if I summoned all of my imaginative powers, I could barely conceive of the pain. Was the crown of thorns like a skinned knee but a thousand times worse? Would having a spike through your hand be like the time my sister stabbed my hand with a meat fork while we were fighting about the dishes? (I don’t recall what I did to her, but I’m sure it was just as bad. Or worse.)

To better appreciate the sacrifice Jesus had made for us, I tried to imagine how miserable he was, but I had so little concept of real pain that torture was beyond my understanding. Instead, I squirmed in the oak pews, kneeling up straight, then slouching, then straightening up, trying to do better for Jesus. If he could be crucified, I could at least kneel up straight for a few hours.

At 3:00, the church bell tolled for Jesus’s death. Our teachers told us that in Jerusalem on the day Jesus was crucified, the earth quaked and the temple curtain was torn. That day, there might even have been an eclipse that darkened the earth for a while. Solemnly, I walked out of church into the sunny afternoon, relieved that the Stations of the Cross and vigil were over, but too respectful to say so.

After church, I was subdued and at loose ends at home. It didn’t seem like I should just play like I always did. Ride bikes, tag, Barbies. For a while I hung around the house. By suppertime—tuna noodle casserole, or fish sticks with tartar sauce, or maybe baked halibut steaks—life felt back to normal. The next day was Holy Saturday, a lighter day when my family would hard-boil and dye eggs. Maybe I’d try on my new Easter dress and shoes and look forward to wearing them to Mass.

More than fifty years later, Good Friday is a nearly normal day. Most businesses are open and people are shopping for their Easter meals, hoping to beat the Saturday-before-Easter crowds.

Despite my nonreligious ways, I often feel a twinge on Good Friday.  At 3:00, I might glance at the sky to see if the sun is darkened and think of Jesus.

 

Uncomfortable in My Own Skin

A few weeks ago while in Kauai, I was reminded of events that happened during two previous visits, episodes that made me aware that I may be freer to walk in the world, because I’m white and middle-class.

During my first trip, I had an afternoon free before I had to return the rental car and fly home. I wanted to spend my last few hours in paradise at the beach. However, checkout was 11:00 a.m. I had to turn in my keys and couldn’t use the chaise lounges at the resort condos where I’d been staying.

A nearby resort routinely put out a slew of chaises on their lawn overlooking the beach. Guests didn’t have to check out chairs. I figured I could blend in with actual guests and hang out there for a few hours. I looked the part of a paying customer—I was wearing clean clothes and had a backpack, towel, and an iPad. Not the profile for a homeless person.

It was a small gamble. Who would wonder about a middle-class white lady? Turns out, no one.

Another time in Kauai, I went for a long walk to Shipwreck Beach. Along the way I enjoyed the red and yellow hibiscus, hot pink bougainvillea, and orange bird of paradise blooming in the resort gardens I passed.

On my way back, I was in full broiling sun and the walk began to seem more oppressive than fun. I could feel myself getting seriously overheated. So I decided to take a break in the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby hotel. Again, I hoped to blend in. The desk clerk smiled and nodded to me. She probably thought I was waiting for someone. After 15 minutes or so, I had cooled down enough to leave the hotel and continue on my trek.

In each case, I wasn’t bothering anyone, but I was trespassing. Perhaps that’s why I started to speculate—would I have been treated as nicely if I were a black or Latina woman? Would somebody have asked, “Can I help you?” with the imperious tone that really means, “What are you doing here?”

 

In Praise of Being Ordinary

Not such a special snowflake!

If anyone had ever asked me if I wanted to grow up to be ordinary, I would have said, “No, of course not!” Being “usual, of no exceptional ability, degree or quality; average,” doesn’t sound that great. Just like everyone else, I hoped to be extraordinary: “unique, one of a kind, without equal, unparalleled, unusual.” Who wouldn’t want to be that?

Ordinariness depends on your perspective. Up close, I’m a distinct person with dark blonde hair, fair skin, and a space between my teeth. I have a yearning to write well and a tendency to be intense that’s occasionally tempered by my sense of humor.

Step back one pace, and I am a middle-aged mom who writes memoir, essays, and blogs. My shape is trim, I dress in moderately attractive (but unoriginal) clothes, and I wear quirky jewelry . . . like a lot of middle-aged women.

Step back further, and I’m part of the well-educated middle class, a woman with a long marriage, and two grown children.

At each remove, I become more ordinary, more faceless, and more similar to others in my category. Some people may think that my similarities to others define me. Everything I’ve done someone else in the world has already done and probably better.

Time sands off the rough edges of individuality. Almost no one stays extraordinary if viewed through the filter of centuries or as one of the billions of people across the globe. Even Jesus had counterparts in other prophets and saviors like Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed.

Admitting that I’m ordinary does NOT mean that I have desperately low self-esteem. Most days, my self-esteem is fine.

No, it’s more that I’m rethinking what it means to be ordinary. I don’t believe being ‘ordinary’ should mean that I’m vaguely inferior, although today the word has that connotation. Being unique (one of a kind) is not the opposite of being ordinary.

I’m a distinct individual, but a part of a collection. I’m not a category unto myself. No one is. I have a lot of company, other travelers in the pursuit of a life I’m happy with. My version—marriage, family, and work that’s meaningful to me—is a life people have chosen for centuries, a life that’s very similar to other people’s lives. Ordinary people have dreams and hope to have a lasting impact—just like millions of other people. Having aspirations and accomplishments doesn’t make a person unique.

Being ordinary should be celebrated. Certainly ‘ordinary’ is what someone who’s seriously ill or from a dysfunctional family longs for. For them, ‘ordinary’ is a blessing, just out of reach.

Which brings me back to where I started. By owning my ordinariness, I’m not embracing complacency. Instead, I’m recognizing that most people have aspirations and accomplishments—in other words, striving is ordinary.

Being ordinary is fine with me.