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.

Happy Holidays from the WordSisters

We wish you happiness and peace now and in the new year!


Taking Pen in Hand

Years of letters

In 1979, when I moved from Ohio to teach at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I was lonely and homesick, so I wrote long letters to my sister, parents, and close friends every week. I couldn’t afford to make as many phone calls as I wanted. One 30-minute weekend call cost around $6, which would be close to $18 in today’s dollars. Four weekend calls per month would add up $72 today. When my oldest son moved to California last June, I thought about those letters again. How much they helped. All of the love they represented.

I don’t know why I saved them when I was 25-29 and again when I was 33-35, but I wasn’t the only one who kept them. My mother and sister did too, which is why I have the ones I sent as well as the ones I received.

Why did I hang onto the letters long after I received them? They are my history. They were a lifeline when I was far from home. They felt valuable even if I didn’t know why. I was in my 40’s before I recognized that writing personal stories (essays, memoir, and blogs) would be my genre.

Writing letters was a creative outlet as well as a way to stay connected. I used a good pen and carefully chose stationery that expressed my taste—maybe something embossed with a seashell or printed with a Sandra Boynton cartoon. Sometimes I invented fake memos and typed them on official university stationery. Writing those letters made me feel more real at a time when I felt isolated and out of my element. Spinning yarns about my boring life made it more bearable.

Alter ego








Reading letters was a ritual. Finding a letter in the mail made my day. They were a shot of love, a touchstone that centered me and helped restore my equilibrium. I didn’t tear them open in the hallway by the apartment mailboxes and speed-read them. Instead, I’d fix a mug of tea or crack open a beer, get comfortable on the sofa, and read. Then reread. Save the letter to look at later. Within a day or two I’d begin composing a reply.

Staying close is so much easier now. My son and I talk as often as we want for as long as we want—cell phone calls are cheap. The emails, texts, photos, or mini videos we send each other have so much more immediacy. There’s no need to compress all of our love, questions, answers, advice, and stories into 10 handwritten pages and wait 3-7 days for an answer. It’s quicker to call.

A friend’s letter to me

However, earlier this summer, I was nostalgic for the stories, drawings, and jokes shared in letters. I missed handwriting, which conveys so much personality and I missed the pleasure of selecting good paper.

Late winter cheer

I bought some stationery and stamps, but I discovered writing letters is different now. I no longer dash off a note as I used to. Now I slow down, think through what I want to say. Instead of just selecting and deleting a phrase, I have to scratch it out or start over if I want to reword it. Because they take more effort, letters seem more weighty, as if they should only be used for important messages. But I’m resisting that. I hope to recapture the lighthearted fun of writing a letter and hopefully share the surprise and delight of receiving a letter.

In time, my son will have a stack of letters (albeit a smaller one). They’re visible proof of our love and connection, unlike calls, texts, and emails, which usually exist in the moment and then disappear into the ether.

And really, staying connected is the point.

You’re the Spark

rock window

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.


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).


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!