Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ellen story

I'm not going to be able to attend Ellen's memorial service. Archie has passed along my condolences and regrets. It was just a matter of timing, money, and work. The service is taking place in a hotel meeting room today and will last 2 hours. People will get up and tell a story about Ellen and generally reminisce about her life and how they know her. I'm sad about missing this moment, but I'd like to honor her passing in a different manner.

Archie and I spoke on the phone several times this week. We both loved Ellen a great deal. Archie introduced me to her back in the early to mid 80s. I passed along a story to Archie that he could tell at the memorial service. I'm posting it here for posterity.

In the early 1990s Ellen was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. At the time this disease was just being heard of and some doctors did not believe it existed. I can attest that it does exist. Ellen had troubles at times staying awake. She'd fall asleep at her desk, come home and fall asleep. She'd sleep all night and most of the day. It was frustrating and debilitating.

During this first attack of the disease I spent a great deal of time with Ellen. I was going to school, attending classes and working on the college radio station and newspaper. After classes, I'd often pop over to Ellen's house to check on her. We'd cook dinner together or I'd cook or bring something over. We'd watch movies or television, often with Ellen falling asleep in the middle of the program or even conversation. I understood and it didn't bother me in the least.

At one stage, early in the disease, a radio station in Detroit began a promotion called "Garden Party at the Whitney". The Whitney is a venerable restaurant in Detroit housed in an old mansion. It's in a rather surreal location as most of the area around the house is typical of Detroit - bordered up, run down, or torn down building sites. Ellen and I thought that attending this radio even would be a fun way to poke around the restaurant without splurging for dinners.

When we arrived we found out that there was a cover charge of $10. This turned both of us off and we nearly turned away. However, it was a beautiful day - the sun was out, but it wasn't too hot - and we had driven downtown already and rush hour was upon the area - so we decided to go in. A singer-songwriter who was on tour at the time was playing in one corner of The Whitney's garden. A few people were gathered around him, but clearly most people were there to stroll, enjoy a drink, and mingle.

Ellen and I found the bar pretty quickly. We were both wearing sunglasses. We each had on a suit jacket with padded shoulders (not matching otherwise). Back then, my hair was long and pulled back into a pony tail. Ellen and I hung around the bar and chatted for a bit. Before long someone walked up to me with his hand extended and said, "Hey, I haven't seen you in ages! How's it going?"

"Great," I said. "How are you doing?"

"Couldn't be better! Job's going well?"


"Hey, we need to do lunch some time. Pick up the phone and give me a call, OK? I've got to run and get back to my guests."

"I'll call you, soon." With that, the guy was walking away. He chatted with his friends and nodded in my direction and waved. I waved back. Ellen asked who it was that I was talking to. "I have no idea," I told her. She laughed. "But you spoke to him as if you knew!"

This happened a second time. And a third time. By the third time Ellen had caught on. We were in a crowd of people who were shallow media and marketing folks. Obviously they were mistaking me for someone else, but who that someone was they weren't quite sure. It was entertaining for a while and I played along.

Eventually, we became bored with the game. What we really wanted to do was get a glimpse inside the restaurant. There was a large stairway that led from the garden to the house. One door was open into the house. We decided to walk up and peak inside. As we got inside, a member of the wait staff walked out of a door that led to a dining room. It looked lovely inside. Ellen and I wanted to go in, but we didn't want to disturb the diners either. To our left was another stairway that led upstairs. I suggested that we go up and see if there were diners up there and poke around a little.

When we got upstairs there was a rather large room. It was clearly a room for meetings or small banquets. A large table was in the center of the room. The table was set with a huge selection of cheese and crackers. A couple in the room told us that this spread was for guests attending the garden party. We were delighted and shocked. There were no signs indicating that food was up here. The cover charge suddenly made sense. We spoke with the other couple briefly before they were downstairs to the garden. Ellen and I had the room to ourselves. Seeing as neither of us had eaten since lunch and we were both on our third drink, we dug into the food.

Each cheese was labeled. We enjoyed trying each one and sharing them. Of all of the cheese there, the one that really stood out for us was Cotswold. Neither of us had tried this cheese before. Cotswold is an English double Gloucester flavored with bits of chives. It really is a heavenly snacking cheese. We continued to munch on other cheeses, but we kept coming back to the Cotswold.

At one point, Ellen grabbed me by the shoulders from behind. "Richard, stand right there. Don't move." I dutifully maintained my position though it seemed like whatever she was doing was taking Ellen an awfully long time. I had no idea what was going on. I assumed that she was fixing her clothing or something. Eventually, I heard some giggling and I felt her lean against my back jiggling something.

"Ellie, dare I ask what's going on back there?"

She started giggling louder. "It won't fit. The damn thing won't fit."

"Ellie, I probably don't want to know, but I'll ask anyhow: what won't fit where?"

At this I got a smack in the back. Ellen started laughing really loudly. She said, "You perve! The cheese! The cheese won't fit in my purse!" Apparently, Ellen had decided that she really liked the Cotswold cheese. She had taken it upon herself to nab the 3 pound wheel of cheese and put it into her bag.

At that moment, I heard footsteps from the stairwell. "Ellie, you had better get it into your purse quickly. Someone's coming."

"I'm trying, I'm trying. The damn thing. Hold on...I think I've got it. I just need a min.." All the while, Ellen's laughing harder and harder.

A couple showed up in the doorway. "Hello," I said. They replied in kind. Ellen grabbed my arm and poked her head around my side. She had that grin that she got whenever she was being childish and trying to pull something off. It was an innocent grin, but those of us who knew her knew better. The other couple didn't notice, though it was clear that they thought it was odd that Ellen never came around from behind me.

"Hi," said Ellen.

"Is this for the garden party?" asked the man.

"Apparently," I said.

"It's a terrific spread, isn't it?" asked Ellen.

"Yea, yea." agreed the couple. Then they took off back down the stairs, clearly not certain as to what they had walked in on.

Ellen got the cheese into her purse. We decided to take off. The music wasn't very good, the drinks were over priced, and hell - we had the best of the cheeses.

We went back to Ellen's house that night where we ate more cheese and crackers, enjoyed drinks at her place, and watched an old movie together. Ellen, of course, fell asleep during the movie. I fell asleep after the film. Fozzie, her dog, fell asleep between us on her sectional sofa.

The next morning, we split the take. Ellen shared hers with her family while I took mine home to share with my family. It's a fond memory of mine. This was so like Ellen - her vibrancy, her child-like whims, her spontaneity. I loved all of it. I loved her. I miss her.

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