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Ruth, Imogene, and a Simple Twist of Fate

September 10, 2011

I don’t think I ever really had girlfriends, at least not in the traditional sense. There were, however, girls whose journeys through life became entangled with mine for brief periods through, I believe, fate (I was far too inept to have accomplished it on my own). This is the story of one such girl that had an odd twist to it. This is the story of Ruth.

I met Ruth during my freshman year at college. Our relationship was quite unexpected and totally inexplicable. I think I was pretty much of a dorky guy. She was, to put it simply, a knockout. If we were cars, I would have been someone’s beat-up old nondescript brown Buick. Ruth was a sleek new Lamborghini. How I ever ended up with her is beyond me.

We met through a friend that knew her from high school, and the details of our initial encounter are foggy at best. But there are several episodes of our time together that are still crystal clear.

I had been newly exposed to the world of jazz through my roommate, who was a jazz drummer. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. New York City was a hotbed of jazz, and it was just a short ride away. I read that Thelonious Monk was playing at the Village Vanguard, so I asked Ruth if she’d like to go.

Now, I was not a “dater” in any sense of the word, nor was I very sophisticated about what a night in the city entailed. I had never been to the Vanguard, either, so each step of the way was a new discovery. Like paying an exorbitant amount to park. Like realizing there were such things as cover charges and minimums. The show itself was terrific, and I even had a chance encounter with Monk in the men’s room. Of course Ruth looked fabulous. But when the check came, I didn’t have enough cash. It was beginning to feel like one of those scenes in a Woody Allen movie with the bumbling protagonist stammering his way through excuses and being physically tossed out of the joint. Ruth, however, immediately perceived the quandary I was in and, in her cool manner, slipped me the necessary money. She had saved my hide, and better yet, didn’t even make a big deal about it on the way home. What a gal!

Another memorable evening occurred during New Year’s Eve. My parents, quite uncharacteristically, decided to have a party in our decidedly 1950’s Goodwill decor basement. I was living on campus, and my life there was quite separate from that of home, so no one had met Ruth or even heard of her until I announced that I was bringing her. The “guests” were an odd assortment of relatives and neighbors, mostly older, and when I walked in with Ruth, mouths literally dropped (and perhaps a drink if I remember correctly). I even heard a “Va-va-voom” uttered by one of my rather intoxicated uncles in the back. Ah, the stories that must have been told far into the night after we departed.

Later that spring, Ruth suddenly moved to Florida. She wrote to me sporadically. Once, in a creative attempt to keep the flames of our relationship burning, I wrote her a poem/letter on a napkin. That was a big hit, but after a few months, I didn’t hear from her again.

Years went by. I graduated, went overseas in the Peace Corps, came back, and began both my teaching career and married life. Years turned into decades. Ruth was firmly and irrevocably in the past. Or so I thought.

Each June at the school in which I taught an award was given to one graduating student, second in prestige only to Valedictorian. It’s in honor of a legendary principal of the school (the one, as a matter of fact, who hired me–another exercise in fate those who know of my life are familiar with) who was known for her kindness to all and an intense belief in the betterment of oneself through education regardless of the obstacles. Not a stray dog or cat would go uncared for in the vicinity of the school, and she had a special place in her heart for those who exhibited such kindness themselves. I had been in charge of this award since its inception years ago, and one of my duties was to write and deliver the presentation speech at graduation.

This particular year when the staff met to nominate students for this award, one name came up immediately and repeatedly. She was an extraordinary young lady, the sweetest, kindest, most genuine kid you could ever imagine. As soon as Imogene’s name came up, there was little further discussion needed. Everyone loved Imogene. Everyone admired and respected her for the humble way she had risen to the top of the very tough mountain she had to climb. She had been raised by her grandmother because of a difficult situation within her family. Imogene won the award, and I was glad, for it would be a pleasure to write and deliver this speech.

Graduation night. The students marched in. Imogene was in the front row, directly in front of the podium on the stage. It was time to present the award, the students not knowing ahead of time who had won. As I delivered my speech, I saw Imogene, listening intently as she always did to everything. I saw her grandmother sitting in the parents’ section. And when I finally announced her name, I watched the stunned look on her face as she sat there (someone so pure as she never would think she is the winner). Her fellow students cheered from the heart, for they knew how worthy she was even if she didn’t. As she walked up in disbelief, the auditorium spontaneously stood in an ovation. I could have swept her up in my arms and hugged her.

The scene after the students marched out to Pomp and Circumstance was always a madhouse as parents, faculty, students, and assorted relatives and friends packed the hallway on the way to the cookie and juice “reception” that followed in the cafeteria, so I didn’t get to speak to Imogene or her grandmother. During the course of the year, I had gotten to know her grandmother, who in her own quiet way watched over Imogene like a mother bear over her cub. I remember the first time I met the woman at Back to School night for the parents in September. She came up to me after the session was over and introduced herself (not by her name, but as “Imogene’s grandmother”) and exhorted me, kindly but with an unmistakable inner strength, to take good care of her little girl. The day after graduation, she sent an e-mail thanking me.

I e-mailed her back, thanking her and telling her again how strongly I felt about this wonderful kid she had raised. The secretary had told me that she wanted a copy of the speech I delivered, so I included that. School ended, and off I went to my annual Cape Cod interlude. Once home, I checked my e-mail to find this:

“Dear Mr. Daborn:

This is something I want to share with you: I have a sister-in-law whom I adore.  She is beautiful and brilliant.  She means so much to me.  It’s not often that you get an in-law in life that you love unconditionally.  I e-mailed her your speech.  Life is so strange.  And at times we do see that  we are spiritually connected.  She happens to love Imogene a lot. I know you like Imogene too.  My sister-in-law, Ruth, told me that she dated a young man that was a Freshman in Seton Hall University who went into the Peace Corps  and he was one of the nicest men she ever met.  Why he even bought her tickets to a jazz concert because he knew she loved jazz.  She remembers going to his home on New Years Eve. She would not be surprised if he became a teacher.  He had it in him so to speak.   She moved away to Florida.  Her last name was Francis, Ruth Francis.  Ring a bell? She said your speech was eloquent and so well written.  Since she is a very good writer, take that as a compliment.  Imogene getting you as a teacher was not only luck but meant to be.  Thank you so much. “

I nearly fell out of the chair! Fate had woven this pattern with such an intricate and surprising design. I wrote her back, telling her that indeed I was that freshman at Seton Hall, and that I remembered Ruth clearly. I asked that my regards be sent along and concurred that fate is often at work in strange and unusual ways. Grandmother responded one more time, giving me a brief history of the forty-some years since I had known Ruth, how she moved to Florida, married the grandmother’s younger brother and became part of a husband-wife comedy team (this sounds like a Vonnegut novel) but then realized the financial instability and went into advertising, ending up as executive vice-president of a big agency (she was responsible for the Verizon “can you hear me now” campaign). At one point the grandmother was thinking about having her come in to school and speak to the class on how to make TV commercials.

“Wouldn’t that have been something!” she said.

Yes, indeed, it would have.

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