Thursday, May 03, 2012

Doug Ruhe, We Love You

Doug Ruhe has been a great family friend for over twenty years. I was lucky enough to get to hang out with him a few times before I moved to the city. Some of my fondest memories of him took place in unusual environments- watching amateur boxing matches in shifty Bronx neighborhoods; attending narcotics annonymous meetings in Newburgh (neither Doug nor I are drug users; somehow, we just related to these groups); singing Christmas carols with the Bruderhofers in Chester; and one great day of canoeing on the Hudson River. Doug's huge heart and laugh always made me smile, and I really enjoyed hearing his long stories. This post was written in 2007, with lots of love for this great man's spirit. Doug passed away this week unexpectedly.
The inevitable high anxiety brought on by Thanksgiving Day preparations was not lessened in the slightest by having it at Doug's house. If anything, it made things worse. At least when Thanksgiving was at Dakota’s, they had the luxury of being able to blame each other for their individual anxiety, as families predictably do, and then carry on happily over-eating. Noa felt to have it at Doug's meant her holiday stress would be transferred directly onto his shoulders, but the guilt for putting it there would bring it right back to her, defeating the whole purpose. Dakota called Noa at 7 pm the night before to express her concerns about the pending doom. She had just quit smoking four days earlier and couldn’t stop thinking about cigarettes. There would be smokers at Doug's house and they would be free to wander about the house smoking, tempting her off the wagon. Also, Doug had never made a turkey in his life; there was no mention of stuffing or gravy or any of those essential accompaniments that make it a Thanksgiving meal. Who eats turkey without gravy? While she continued down the list of reasons why this was going to be a horrible evening, Noa tried to monitor her own now rising anxiety level. Suddenly she couldn't hold back either, and burst forth with her own personal gripe with the host. Noa had invited Gilbert to join them. Doug had told her that some of his Kenyan friends would be coming, and Noa knew that Gilbert had been feeling particularly homesick that week, and she cheered him up with the news of the other Kenyan guests. After speaking with Doug a second time, the truth came out that these African friends were not Kenyan at all; in fact, they were not even from East Africa. How could she disappoint Gilbert with fake Kenyans? Not to mention how racist it made Noa appear- just another ignorant American, thinking all Africans speak the same language. The wrath of the sisters was all over Doug. They concluded that they were not in the proper Thanksgiving frame of mind, and that they needed to just let everyone bring to the table what he was capable of and to stop trying to control everyone else. Noa hung up the phone feeling emotionally drained. The next day, try as she might, she couldn't maintain the calm she had wanted. She spent the whole day preparing her signature dishes and then getting dressed up for the special day, right up until the last minute. She loaded up her car with the goods, and as she put on her seatbelt, realized she was now physically exhausted. Roasted root vegetables still hot from the oven gave her car a homey smell, but her nerves could not belie the frazzled soul inside. She put in her Rokia TraorĂ© CD, hoping to regain her sense of peace. She arrived at the Barnes and Noble parking lot and saw Gilbert patiently waiting for her inside his green Hyundai. He looked like a person who never lost his inner peace. His voice made her instantly relax. He had that soft Bantu accent that reminded her of a more peaceful life where no one lived in the confines of the hour. He got into her car, and off they drove. They were running late. She passed the street she thought she was supposed to turn on to. Gilbert said he does that all the time. When they arrived at the house, the sky was starting to darken, but the neon orange and gold leaves outside framed the house. They walked in with the dishes and placed them on the kitchen counter tops. Dakota smiled and said, “Nothing is ready.” Noa smiled back and wished someone had brought a bottle of wine. Noa stepped into the living room and sat down on the couch. She greeted Meg, Doug’s mother, who was wearing a sparkly red sweater. Hailey and her boyfriend Arturo were there. Noa was happy to see her niece with her beau, especially after the disappointment of him not showing up last year for the holiday. Meg asked Noa for the third time who she was. At 91, the recent details escaped her. Noa wandered into the kitchen, and found a stylish Shamsi, Doug’s daughter, checking on the temperature of a large pan of stuffing. The women hugged each other in greeting. Noa admired Shamsi’s striped knit arm-sleeves and commented. Shamsi ran out and got a pair for Noa. Not wanting to get stuck in the kitchen, Noa brought apple juice for the living room people. The only one talking was Meg, who seemed to have a bottomless pit of questions. “Are you married?” The question hung in the otherwise quiet room. “No,” Noa laughed. Doug arrived home and dinner was ready shortly after. Though most of the guests were practicing Baha’is, the eating had begun without the usual thanks. Another Dakota ritual fell by the wayside. About ten years ago, when her children were little, Dakota started the tradition of having all the guests share a few words with everyone of what they were thankful for. Noa was sure it was inspired by her desire to get Noa's extremely shy date to open up about his intentions towards her. The poor guy's face turned deep red as he softly claimed thanks for having been invited. The following year, Noa suspected once again Dakota was using this flimsy guise to get her own closed-mouthed boyfriend Tom to express a little public appreciation for her. This time it backfired. The group that year was standing in a circle awkwardly obeying the Thanksgiving rights. It was finally Tom’s turn. Dakota was beaming at him expectantly. He said, 'I just want to say that I am so thankful for my beautiful, wonderful son Ezra.' Noa and Dakota had to excuse themselves to the kitchen to relieve the hysteria. Maybe it was time to break with tradition for a while. So on this day, there were no speeches, no thank-yous, just a big group of people that Doug had collected to share a delicious meal. Doug turned to Gilbert: “We had a Kenyan named Hezekiah Nyamau stay with us in the 1970's.” Noa turned to her friend and asked jokingly, “Do you know him?” Arturo laughed. She liked sharp men, and thought he was well suited for her niece. Conversations splintered around the table. Noa heard her sister asking Gilbert about his background. “So your father is a king?” She heard her say. “Yes,” he answered earnestly. “And how many children did he have?” “Eighteen,” was the next sober answer. When dinner was finished everyone helped clear the table. Doug sat down in the kitchen and started handing out slices of pie he had cut. He then singled Gilbert out with a finger point and beckoned him to sit down and talk to him. Doug doesn't hold conversations, he holds audiences. He's got a million stories derived from his colorful life, ranging in topic from being a Vietnam vet, to hitchhiking across the states. Noa and Dakota looked at each other and raised their eyebrows in concern for young Gilbert. Doug's voice grew louder and louder as his story continued, and Gilbert could be seen from the back nodding periodically. After a while, Doug received a phone call, and Gilbert was free to walk about once again. It was getting late, and Noa started packing food to take back with her. She asked Gilbert if he'd like anything else to eat, and he indicated with facial expression that he was so too full to eat another bite. Then several more people who hadn't heard his rejection offered him the same plate of seconds. He declined politely. Doug came busting back into the kitchen, patted Gilbert's shoulder and said, “Come in the living room, I have another story I want to tell you.” “OK, I'll be right there.” Noa was cutting a piece of pie for Hailey to take back with her. Gilbert handed her a paper plate and said, “I need a piece too, Doug is going to tell me another story.” Hailey and Noa were doubled over in laughter as poor Gilbert made his way into the Doug Show with his apple pie prop. Then Dakota came into the kitchen. She told Noa that she didn't know that Gilbert had come from royalty. Noa told her that he hadn't. “Then why did he tell me that?” The other girl didn't have an answer. Dakota went on to say, “And he told me he has 18 brothers and sisters altogether.” “Gilbert is an orphan,” Noa announced straight-faced. “So he's a liar?” Dakota was confused. “No, he's not a liar. He was probably playing with you.” Dakota looked over at the display of Doug flailing his arms excitedly as he went into detail about the riots during the civil rights movement to a still Gilbert. “I should rescue him,” Noa said. “Well, you can tell him later that this is the punishment we inflict on liars-we have them sit and listen to Doug's stories for hours.” Noa was curious about her friend's behavior, but she was sure there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. They said their good-byes and quickly left before a new story could spring out. When she dropped her friend at his car, she commented on the interesting stories he had told her sister. He looked down and laughed softly. “What stories?” he asked, his face now completely serious. “Your father is a king?” she said. He laughed again, and then explained that when people ask him those kinds of questions, he has to test the royal family story, as it's common for Americans to think that all Africans come from royalty and have large families. He said he didn't mean to lie to her; it's just that he's experienced people's moods changing when he tells them his real story, and he didn't want to change the Thanksgiving mood. Then he gathered his courage and asked the question he'd wanted to ask but couldn't find the right time. “When that old lady asked you if you were married, and you answered that you were not, I felt a pain in my heart for you. I hope you don't mind that I'm asking you this. But why don't you wish to be married?” Noa started explaining how she was really happy alone, and she had had her share of boyfriends in the past, but really, men were just annoying. She believed what she was saying, but also thought the words sounded very sad and somehow didn't ring completely true. Then she thought of the words of that song by TraorĂ© that she had listened to on her drive to Doug's house: M'bifo It is true that strength is in unity Thank you my love For being at my side no matter what Only a distant memory remains Of my solitude and my fears Now I am strong through your support Your presence makes me radiant. I still remember my sadness When I observed couples Crushed by the weight of their bond. Men and women for whom Union becomes a yoke "Solitude would be a guarantee of a more agreeable life." I told myself I would not have to deal with the sweet bitterness Which pervades couples with the passage of time This way I would only enjoy love affairs. Never bitter unions These sad thoughts are far behind me At your side, I have transcended all that. When things go badly. We have each other. And we should tell each other When we are happy Thank you my love, thank you my dearest. I brought you an empty receptacle from the period of my solitude. You filled it with love, you have filled me with happiness.

2 comments:

~x~ said...

I liked that you called me stylish. Thanks for coming that year. I hope to see you this Thanksgiving.

Tamar said...

You are VERY stylish! Those arm warmers left a big impression on me. I would be honored to have Thanksgiving with you ~big hug~