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.

You’re the Spark

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As writers, sometimes our own light flickers, but it can be rekindled by a spark from another person. The WordSisters are grateful to you, our readers, for inspiring us and sharing your thoughts with us since 2012.

We wish you a full helping of love, laughter, and good food this Thanksgiving.

 

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Halloween Past—St. Helena by Day, Fairy Godmother by Night

When I think of Halloween, this memory comes to mind: cutting across neighborhood lawns (it was faster than running down the sidewalk and up each driveway) and clutching a pillowcase that was at least one-third full of candy. It was dark and the streetlights were on, but I wasn’t scared, because decades ago when I was 9, none of us worried about crime. Besides, I ran in a pack with half a dozen other kids who were also trick or treating.

How I imagined my costume looked . . .

I recall jogging down Charlestown St., several blocks away from my house, because more is more, and I wanted to cover as much territory as possible before 8:00 p.m. when I had to be home. My parents were home, not trailing along on the sidewalk or in the car. I doubt Mom even remembered to take our picture before we left. Halloween was for kids, not parents.

That was an era before tampered-with Tylenol or razor blades in apples. I was old enough to take care of myself in the neighborhood. Running block after block was no trouble because I was 9, and kids ran everywhere, especially if it meant more candy.

My molded plastic fairy godmother/princess mask was pushed up off my face so I could see while I ran. I’d pull it down before I rang each doorbell. I had hiked up my belted white shift so I could run, and my blue cape floated behind me. I had worn this same costume to school—minus the mask and magic wand/scepter—so I could go as St. Helena, as my saint namesake, a Catholic school requirement.

St. Helena

The nuns at my grade school kept us rooted in the religious meaning of Halloween—All Hallowed’s (Saints) Eve. November 1st is All Saints Day, which involved going to Mass and praying for the dead, but it didn’t really resemble the Mexican Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos). Supposedly, that’s a day when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead thins and spirits of the dead can visit.

However, the usual boundaries of my life were also looser at Halloween. My parents were indulgent. They didn’t fuss about us being out after dark on a school night. They reserved the right to cherry-pick some of the better loot, like Reese’s cups and Butterfingers, but I got to keep and eat the rest of my Halloween candy.

What I remember most is how carefree I was.

Compliment Activation (or Geeky Fun with Words)

This has been a tough week in the world, so I thought you might like a little diversion.

Sometimes I hear interesting words or phrases that pique my curiosity. These three phrases suggested meanings, but when I checked, I discovered the real meanings were very different.

Compliment activation – What I hope will happen after I get my hair cut or if I’m showing off a new pair of shoes.

When I first heard this term at a medical conference in a previous life, I was delighted. After all, I’m a writer and love expressive language. But if you spell this the scientific way —“complement activation,” you get the real meaning:

The complement system includes 20+ protein molecules that circulate in the blood. When the body senses a pathogen (the cooties that cause disease), the complement system is activated and a sequence of events occurs to fight infection. So either kind of complement activation can be good for you.

Antisense – Sounds like a good description for current events. Also might describe what the chipmunks in my yard are saying.

“Antisense” just covers so many situations. Turns out, it also has a scientific meaning: Having a sequence of nucleotides complementary to (and hence capable of binding to) a coding sequence, which may be either that of the strand of a DNA double helix that undergoes transcription, or that of a messenger RNA molecule (Dictionary.com).

Whaaaat?

After more research, I learned that the concept of antisense evolved into a therapy for genetic disorders. When a particular gene is responsible for a disease, a strand of nucleic acid can be bound to the messenger RNA of that gene and effectively switch off the disease-causing gene.

Regional expression – OK, I think I got this. A regional expression is like “pop” in the Midwest or “soda” on the East coast. Or maybe the way I say, “crick” for “creek” – an Ohio thing. Unless we’re talking about genetics.

Every gene contains a particular set of instructions that code for a specific protein. Gene expression is the process that enables DNA instructions to be converted into something useful, such as a protein. Where a gene lies in the genome (its region or neighborhood) influences the regulation of gene expression. In other words, gene behavior is influenced by where it hangs out. Hmm. Just like people.

It can’t hurt to know a bit more about genetics, but I like my definitions better!

Peering Past the Red Velvet Rope

While vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, my husband and I toured Kykuit, Rockefeller’s lavish summer home; Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest cottage; and the Hancock Shaker Community’s very plain dormitories.

Mindful of the red velvet ropes and little fences that kept us from exploring/trespassing, we craned our heads around doorways, peered into corners, and tried to imagine the lives lived there. Despite the tour guides’ colorful stories, sometimes it was hard to breathe life into those rooms. Occasionally, my mind drifted, and I entertained myself by imagining what a future tour guide would say about my home after I’ve achieved some unspecified (and as yet unattained) notoriety.

No doubt, future tourists leaning across the velvet rope blocking entrance to my office will say, “Ooooh, that’s where Ellen used to write! There’s the honey locust she used to look at while she wrote, and there’s the sad clematis on the too-big trellis—remember her blog about defensive landscaping?” 

The tour guide might add, “To preserve historical accuracy, we left the pile of mail on the loveseat. Family stories mention that she used to let it ‘age’ for up to two weeks before she dealt with it.” Visitors will chuckle and some of the more avid ones will lean in to snap photos of the mail pile.

“And over there—a see the cat bed on the radiator? Her cat, Pinky, kept her company on cold Minnesota afternoons. Maybe he was even her muse as she struggled to revise her blogs and essays.” The tourists will jostle each other to take pictures of the cat bed.

The guide will probably point out, “Some of the furniture is antique—like the Mission style oak desk. Supposedly Ellen refinished it when she first moved to Minnesota years before she moved here for good. It was the only desk she ever used.” One of the visitors will probably sigh in appreciation. “We believe that she might have been sitting in that beat-up office chair when she received the call about winning the MacArthur Genius Grant/Nobel Peace Prize/Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.” More clicking cameras and cell phones.

“Next, we come to the music room, where Ellen’s husband composed his opus . . . .” The tourists will dutifully shuffle across the hall to oooh and ah.

Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?