The Red Headed Woman With the Little Black Dog

It’s time for a walk. In addition to a leash, Susan Joy Rippberger grabs a canvas travel case. She puts her little black dog inside it and heads out the door.

Tiburcia, or Tibu for short, is Susan’s constant companion. The seven-year-old-dog, a Yorkie/ Chihuahua mix, is the size of the squirrels she chases.

Tibu, whose Spanish name means “the place of the pleasures,” goes to work with Susan (up until recently, she had a position with a school in Brooklyn). 
Tibu goes to yoga (she’s better at downward-facing dog and puppy pose than the humans she’s copying).

Tibu flies to Mexico several times a year to visit family (she sits on Susan’s lap).

And Tibu takes Susan for walks every day.
“She’s my emotional-support dog,” Susan says, “but sometimes I think I’m her emotional-support animal.”

Tibu gazes at her without contradicting her.

Soft-voiced Susan, sweet and serene as the first day of spring, is Tibu’s adopted mother.

She originally belonged to Susan’s daughter, Sara.

It’s unclear whether Tibu knows her true parentage or whether she has questioned why her hair is black and Susan’s is red. But it doesn’t matter because she loves Susan and Sara, if not equally then separately.

It’s only recently that Susan has lived in New York. She was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, a city she knows nothing about and doesn’t identify with.

That’s because when she was a year old, her parents moved to Santa Barbara, California.

By the time Susan was in kindergarten, her father was at UCLA earning his doctorate. The family of seven was crammed into a one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. (The sixth and final child was born there.)

When Susan entered third grade, the family was back in Santa Barbara.

And Susan was used to moving.

“I remember a friend, someone I didn’t know that well, asking me, ‘Have you always been a gypsy,’ and after some thought, I said, ‘I think so.’”

At any rate, when Susan was 17, she was in San Luis Obispo attending California Polytechnic State University.

She earned her first degree – in sociology and dance – from UCLA.

“I had wanted to be an art major, but the art school enrollment was closed,” she says. “I would have had to wait a year to get in.”

A teaching job at an elementary school took her to Indio, California, and wanderlust landed her in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a summer destination that would play a large role in her future.

“I met a woman in the Christian Science church,” Susan says. “She had a very handsome son who lived in Mexico City who visited her all the time.”
After a month-long courtship, Susan married him.

“I liked his spirit,” she says, adding, once again, “and he was handsome.”

She concedes, though, that he never was much of a dancer.

They settled in Santa Barbara. They divorced a year later, shortly after Sara was born.

“But I stayed married to his family,” Susan says. “I visit them several times a year.”

Susan continued to teach, and in her free time she earned degree number two – a master’s in international education and administration — from the University of California Santa Barbara.

Seven years later, Susan took Sara to Pittsburgh and earned a doctorate in international and development education and policy studies with a certificate in Latin America studies from the University of Pittsburgh.

After a short stint teaching in Ohio, Susan ended up in El Paso, Texas, where she taught for a decade.

“Sara went to Barnard College in Manhattan, and I was getting a little bored,” Susan says. “I always wanted to be an artist.”

She opened her art studio after she earned a master’s in fine art from the San Francisco Art Institute.

“I was 55,” she says, “and I had spent my entire life doing things for everyone else in my family. This was just for me.”

To finance her passion, she lived off the retirement money from her teaching career.

She made a name for herself creating interactive performance art, which includes the ongoing series “Night Angel” that Susan imbues with light and movement using a hand-crocheted rebozo fashioned from extension cords.

To further her art career, Susan moved to Brooklyn in 2014, taking over Sara’s old apartment.

In 2018, mother and daughter and dog moved into an apartment in Astoria. Susan’s bedroom doubles as her art studio.

Ever the gypsy, Susan’s ready to start something new. Recently, she resigned from the Brooklyn school.

“I couldn’t do the four-hour commute any more,” she says.

She’s looking forward to freelance work and is applying to teach online courses. She’s also circulating her resume to local shops.

“I’d like to devote all my time to art and prayer,” she says. “Those are my two lifelines.”

She talks about opening an art center in Queens that would have a gallery space, coffee shop and studios for working artists like herself.

“The center would also help immigrants and teach them to speak English,” she says.

She and a group of like-minded friends are applying for grants. There’s no guarantee, and even if the money does come in, it could take a while to get things going.

That’s okay with Susan. The laundry around the corner is hiring. She saw a sign in the window.

She wouldn’t mind folding clothes for four hours a day. It would be a meditation.

And Tibu would be right there with her.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit

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