Tuesday and Mrs. Tibbles
Mrs. Tibbles, a character in my next novel, is inspired by a friend and student I had many years ago who had been a Martha Graham dancer. She had that willowy bend to her arms and legs. The lilt of her head that said grace. Her shoulders square and straight, but not soldiery. She worked on a memoir of her dancing days in the writing workshop I facilitated. Her stories were tales of working with Zero Mostel, Tennesee Williams, entertaining Russian delegates in her dinky New York apartment, serving dinner on a table made from her bathroom door laid over two bookcases. I picture her in a velvet and lace red dress while pouring ouzo or chilled vodka into tiny crystal glasses. That last part is in my head, details that arrange themselves based on who I imagine she was. A Vogue model, a true fact I only know because I picked her up to take her to lunch after she left the group, and she showed me around her home. A one-story Southern California middle class two-bedroom, with photos and magazine covers framed and hung here and there. The Cleavers could have lived in this house, and maybe they did. That’s what fascinates me about life: we don’t really know what goes on inside anyone else’s world, home, or their head.
I know a lot about what went on in Ellen’s life because she told us in the group. She didn’t write it down. What she wrote was very banal and undetailed. But she would elaborate verbally when we would tell her she needed to tell us more. “Put it on the page!” we would say when she’d relate a story about clomping around her apartment with large tomato juice cans tied to her feet to practice for the Lolapalooza. “Put it on the page! Write it down!”
She never did. Ellen was diagnosed with severe Alzheimers. She would lose her way to my house (my living room is where I hold my private groups), and we thought she was bonkers. We’d smile at one another, a look in our eye that translated into “She’s loopy.” We meant it with love. Then she had to leave the group because they took away her car. I continued to stay in touch, to take her to lunch, to try to reach out to her. I didn’t want her stories to disappear. I encouraged her to continue to write. She quit taking her medication “because it makes me dizzy” and what dancer wants to be dizzy. She’d had a good life, the best life anyone could expect, she said. She didn’t see any point in having to stick around for what was to come.
One day, after a panicky and disoriented lunch, she called, and said I was the only person who still contacted her. She believed everyone had forgotten her.
I never heard from Ellen again.