A man spends so much of his lifetime chasing the image of his father. He is the model, the person we grow up believing we're supposed to be. My father died six years ago. In his prime, he was a popular man around our town-a Southern gentleman, a former Marine, an obstetrician, and a mensch. He was known for his easy laugh, his near-crushing handshakes, his ram-rod posture, his fastidious attention to rules and details, his generosity. He helped women with coats and opened doors. He was a good listener. He could be counted upon; he was ever-honest and well-dressed with a stubborn sense of justice that often found him tilting at windmills. Everybody loved Marv Sager.
But nobody knew Marv Sager very well. He didn't speak of his feelings or tell stories about himself. He didn't gossip. He kept his own council. His warm laugh issued from closed lips. I like to think I share some of my dad's good qualities. Those who know me would probably agree. But they would also say that in many important ways I am my mother's son.
The truth is, I was born when my dad was in medical school. During so much of my life he was absent-working late, on call, attending meetings, holding office hours, delivering babies, seeing to the needs of others. It was my mother who was always there. And yet I've never written about her influence on my life. We chase the image of those who aren't present. Meanwhile, we don't always see the ones who are.
This one's for you, Mom.
I am three or four years old and wearing a Superman costume. My mother, Beverly Rosenberg Sager, is mock-tied to a dinette chair. My dad was her date for her junior prom, a set-up from the next town over, an arrangement by their Jewish moms. She is a graduate of Hood College; she wanted to go to work for an ad agency in New York City, but her father wouldn't let her go. My father is a probably at the hospital, by now a resident. I swoop to her rescue-I remember to this day the feelings of love swelling my chest.
She takes me everywhere in a blue station wagon. She brings snacks when it's her turn to drive the carpool. During my elementary years, she makes me the same lunch every day: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, an orange (peeled and de-pithed), and a small bag of Fritos. Later, when we move to a new house in a better neighborhood, I am upgraded to corned beef on rye. Every Friday, shopping day, she comes home and prepares a week's worth of corned beef sandwiches, wraps them in foil and cellophane, and puts them in the freezer. In the mornings, she packs the lettuce separately.
We chase the image of those who aren't present. Meanwhile, we don't always see the ones who are.
She never wishes me luck before an athletic event; instead she issues a worried look followed by, "Don't get hurt." She never misses a game. She sews my varsity letter on my jacket herself. About girls, she once advises me: Never write it down. I don't listen. The girl reads my letter out loud on the bus. Once, when I tell Mom I'm going steady with a girl from school, she deadpans, "So where are you going?"
She makes me breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. She nags me about my homework. She cleans, makes my bed, and puts away my clothes. She takes me to the store to buy husky sized corduroys. She goes to bat for me when I want a pair of expensive tennis shoes, and also when I want to grow my hair over my ears. She goes to the meetings with my teachers, who complain that my conduct is poor and my spelling is atrocious. I know she feels like the teacher is yelling at her. She edits and types my school papers for me. We fight bitterly over word choice, my first editor.
Whatever I want to do, I have to get her permission. She asks a million questions: Where are you going? With whom? Why? What time? I have to answer completely before I can do anything. In later years, a reporter will ask her why she thought I became a writer. "He was always a great bullshitter," she'll say.
I sit with her in random places, waiting as people do for things to begin, in a synagog or traveling somewhere. She talks under her breath (loudly) and points out (slyly, with a manicured fingernail) the odd little things about the people around us. Strange details, weird goings-on, physical deformities, sometimes not so nice. She has a thing about fat people and men with toupees. She is wicked, really. Don Rickles. She seems to possess a sixth sense. Often she is correct. When she's not, it doesn't matter, she won't change her mind; she is sure she'll be right in the end. Often she says what others are thinking, but would never say.
My mom turned 85 recently. She still travels on her own and goes to aerobics three times a week. She visits me two or three times a year. She takes the bus to New York to see shows. In February she went to Club Med for the thirty-third time. She has her friends, she's staying where she is. She is no more polite than ever.
"I'm old. I can say what I want," she says.
It's kind of weird, but the other night, cleaning up after cooking myself dinner-something my father was never was expected to do-I was thinking about this Mother's Day piece. It struck me that, in constitution, I was like the common kitchen sponge I was using to wash the plates-the dark green side for scouring, the yellow side for absorbing. I have my father's generous lower lip and approachable brown eyes, his work ethic, his gift for ministry. And I have a tiny extra toenail on my right little toe, just like my mom, and her gift for self-expression. Often I find myself saying what other people wouldn't.
For many years, in these occasional essays, I have credited my dad for teaching me the lessons of manhood. But in my early fifties, when my wife left the household and my son elected to live with me, it was my mom's teachings that held sway. I made the breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I did the laundry, folded the clothes, kept house, supervised homework, tucked the kid into bed. For a while I even experimented with pre-made frozen sandwiches.
One night during the tender days before my son left for college, he jokingly called me Mom. I've never been more proud.
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