Forgetting to be Remembered
The characters in my novels often haunt me–in a good way. That’s when I know they are true. 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. Ellen had that willowy bend to her arms and legs. The lilt of her head that said grace. Her shoulders were square and straight, but not soldiery. In the writing workshop I facilitated, she worked on a memoir of her dancing days. Her stories were tales of working with musical comedic legend Zero Mostel, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennesee Williams, master dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor, and the relentless “mother of modern dance” Martha Graham. Ellen was also a 1950s Vogue cover model, a fact I only know because once, when I picked her up to take her to lunch after she left the group, she showed me around her home. A one-story Southern California middle class two-bedroom, with photographs and magazine covers modestly framed, hung here and there. The Cleavers could have lived in this house, and maybe they did.
That’s what fascinates me about human beings: we don’t really know what goes on inside anyone else’s world, home, or their head. Yet we assume we all want the same things. We don’t, of course, but I believe there is one thing we all aspire to, and we can only get it from other people.
While I can only speculate about what was inside Ellen’s head, I know a lot about what went on in her life, because she told those of us in the group. What she wrote was actually very banal, with hardly any detail. But she would elaborate verbally when we asked her to. “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 a dance. At the time, her neighbors would complain. Now, so did we. “Write it down!” we’d repeat, when she told stories of entertaining Russian delegates in her dinky New York apartment, serving dinner on a table made from her bathroom door laid over two bookcases, and later making love on top of that horizontal door. I picture her in a velvet and lace red dress, 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.
She never did write down these stories, nor all the others that spilled off her tongue over the years. When she started to lose her way to my house (my living room is where I hold my private groups), we thought she was bonkers. She’d trip and fall over nothing in the street. We’d smile at one another, a look in our eye that translated to “She’s loopy.” We meant it with love.
But then Ellen was diagnosed with severe Alzheimer’s. Family services took away her car, and she had to leave the group. I stayed in touch, took her to lunch, and tried to reach out to her. I didn’t want her stories to disappear; I encouraged her to write. On one of my visits to her house, she told me she had quit taking her medication because it made her 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.
Photo credit: bienaldancaceara, antydiluvian
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