It’s almost Thanksgiving and I’m thinking about my dad. He’s the one who always carved the turkey.
For the task he favored one of those department store corded electric knives, a Hamilton Beach, I think it was. He was precise in his movements, sure in his cuts, facile with the stubborn joints, avoiding undue carnage, the two scalloped blades pistoning with a mechanical rasp.
When he wasn’t carving our Thanksgiving bird, my father was a doctor. His specialty was obstetrics and gynecology, a field he always said he’d chosen for the triumvirate of skills required—part surgery, part internal medicine, part therapy—all of it infused with his particular facility for empathizing, a quality most publicly evidenced by his inability to make his way across a mall or a restaurant in our small town without encountering fond patients and the broods he’d delivered.
When he hugged you, you almost couldn’t breathe, but you came away knowing you were loved deeply and without condition. In no small way, my father’s hugs helped to forge my sense of self, the armor that protects one from the vicissitudes of life among others on this imperfect and often contentious human plane.
Marvin Miles Sager was a handsome man with a winning smile, known for his powerful handshake, his graceful manners, his impeccable dress. More of a listener than a talker, he never told me very much about himself; I learned the most from him just by watching. When he did a job, it had to be perfect. There were lives at stake. He took this attitude into everything he did.
The way he opened doors for people, helped the ladies with their coats, was quick to pick up the check, always seemed to have time to hear the problems of others.
The way he played sports—when throwing or shooting or running, the former high school jock always employed beautiful mechanics; it was clear that form was just as important to him as content.
The way he’d painstakingly police every last kernel of popcorn and scrap of paper from a rental car before we turned it in, or fold all the towels neatly before we checked out of a hotel room.
The way he stood up one time to this huge parking lot attendant. We’d driven in and the attendant had shouted out, “Hey you!” My dad took umbrage at his ungentlemanly tone. He parked his car and walked right up to this human mountain, pointed his index finger toward his somewhat-distant face, and told him, sternly: “Hay is for horses.”
The way he walked with such proud and upright bearing—a remnant of his days in the Marine Corps Reserve. The way he shaved every day, even on Sundays, when he liked to stay home and read the paper and watch football, our beloved Baltimore Colts. The way he closed the pickle and jelly jars so tightly that nobody else in the family could ever open them.
Even his hugs were completely realized. He was not a tall man but his arms were long and strong. When he hugged you, you almost couldn’t breathe, but you came away knowing you were loved deeply and without condition. In no small way, my father’s hugs helped to forge my sense of self, the armor that protects one from the vicissitudes of life among others on this imperfect and often contentious human plane.
My father’s role as the family’s turkey carver was both a duty and an honor–a tribute to his unselfishness as our loving provider, a recognition of the sacrifices he’d made and skills he’d painstakingly acquired over his many years of college and medical training (interrupted by his service in the Korean War). His performance, fueled with a glass of the latest Beaujolais Nouveau, another Thanksgiving tradition, was always competent and graceful, executed with his usual grave air of humility. From a young age, I was his assistant.
My mother gave us both aprons. For a reason she can’t exactly pinpoint, she long ago staked a claim on Thanksgiving as her most ironclad family obligation—as my sister and I grew up and pursued our adult lives away from Baltimore, we were required unequivocally to attend Thanksgiving. Later, when I moved to San Diego, we brought our family celebration here. Forget the wood fire, the frosted windows, the crisp air back east. We had the sunset on the deck, the seals in the Cove, the playground at the Shores, the PB Boardwalk. And we were together, all of us wearing shorts and hoodies. It was good.
My father wielded the electric carving knife with the delicate surety of a surgeon deploying a scalpel. First he’d make a flap of the crusty golden skin and remove it with care, as if intended as a graft for transplant. Then he’d get down to business. As his first assistant, I used a pair of dinner forks to retract, and also to control and lift away each piece as it was being cut. I piled the dark meat on one plate, an orderly display of severed limbs and juicy pieces. The white meat plate was a picture of near-military precision, with my father’s perfect slices, neither too thick nor too thin, fanned out in a pleasing array. Before I carried the plates of meat from the kitchen to the buffet table in the dining room, I used a paper towel to wipe away any juice splatters. I knew what my father expected from me.
Now Thanksgiving is again at hand. My dad won’t be coming. He died six years ago.
My mother, who is 84 and still a determined traveler, will soon arrive in San Diego. My little sister will also fly in, albeit on a different day. That they fly from the same city on separate days, and that this has also become a tradition, speaks, I guess, to the nature of families and traditions, and how they are formed and mutated with the passage time. I’m not sure yet what flight my son will be taking. He’s in college in San Francisco; he’s on his own schedule; I’m just happy that he comes. Even with the bifurcation of our family, my mother’s steadfast notion of family attendance at Thanksgiving seems to be important to him, too. He’s a lot like Marv in that way, a deeply empathetic kid. He knows his grandmother wants him here. Of course, I’m always glad to see him.
After my dad’s death, in the spring of 2011, the following Thanksgiving, my family decided to change things up. Instead of making turkey, we dressed up and went to a fancy seafood place in La Jolla. We’ve been doing the same every year since. They have white tablecloths and an attentive wait staff. I order a glass of the 25-year-old Scotch. They have a turkey dinner if you want. I prefer the lobster.
I never much liked turkey anyway.
I just loved helping my dad carve.
Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more, go here.