4Sarah, Plain and Tall (2002)

How could someone who had seldom had love to call her own feel so much love for others?

(Written in 2000, delivered in 2002 at Sarah's funeral)

SOME NOVELS transfix you; others transform you. And then there is The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel of ideas. Mann wrote the masterpiece in his native German. But there is a key love scene which he wrote in French. In the English translation, the scene remained in French—until 1936, when a high-school girl walked into a library, slipped the book from the shelf, found herself a quiet corner, and meticulously printed the translation in the margins.

That would be my Aunt Sarah. Plain and tall.

a cartoon of a middle-aged woman holding out a valentine

a cartoon of a middle-aged woman holding out a valentine

Her father had fled the anti-Semitism of the Ukraine for the American Midwest. Willie Lehrer had a kind word for all. For him, dignity was the birthright of every man. He showed the garbage man the same respect he would bestow a king. And his ways would become the blueprint for his four children. Especially for Sarah, his eldest. 

Sarah entered the world in the twilight of the first World War and came of age at the dawn of the second. Sharp-nosed, rail thin, and bright, young Sarah was not Miss Popularity. But she found kindred spirits among the creators and characters of literature, theater, and classical music. She would carry on a lifelong love affair with the arts.

Sarah tasted the fruits of college life, but her working-class father could not afford a four-year degree. So she became a secretary at City Hall. Lunching at her desk, she pored over the Great Books. For 45 minutes a day, the Classics became her sanctuary. When her studies took her to Karl Marx, her colleagues branded her a Communist.

But she loved them all the same.

Unlike Miss Daisy, Sarah never learned to drive. She relied on the city bus. In the late sixties, race relations were strained. At times, young black riders would flout the no-smoking sign. “Excuse me,” Sarah would say, “but I’m highly allergic to smoke. Would you mind waiting until you got off the bus?” Often her request was answered by a cloud of smoke in her face. “If they only knew,” she would sigh, “how much love I feel for them.”

When love did not come to her, she created it where she went. Each elevator ride became a chance to say to her neighbor, “My dear, your sweater looks smashing.” Each purchase a chance to tell a clerk, “Your hair looks exquisite.”

As I matured, Sarah became my mentor in matters aesthetic. She taught me that music of worth need not be beautiful. “Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring is an ode to dissonance,” she explained. “It is not beautiful. Yet it is great music.” 

“All things in moderation” was her catch phrase. She taught me to make room for beauty in my otherwise practical life. Once, while home alone, I viewed a moving, beautiful film. When it was over, I needed to reach out to someone. There was no doubt who that someone would be. “Oh, Sarah,” I said, “I just watched Edward Scissorhands, and I’m so filled with love, I had to share it.” 

Sarah was my confidant, and, through thick and thin, my best friend. To her, I was “Paudie.” She never explained why, and I didn’t care.

Like all close friendships, ours was tested on many occasions. In 1981, I was jilted by my fiancée. Friends and family were relieved; they could see that our marriage was doomed. But my fiancée begged me to take her back, and I did. I called my aunt to explain my decision. “Well, Paudie,” she said, in her deliberate cadence, “I think it’s folly. But come Hell or high water, I’ll be there for you.”

When my first marriage was foundering, Sarah offered to phone my wife, to say to her, “My dear, you must be hurting. Please unburden yourself to me.” “Sarah,” I advised, “I’m certain my wife would resent your offer.” “Paudie,” she replied, “We must take that risk. When someone is suffering, nothing matters but to relieve their suffering.”

That is not to say Sarah’s friendships were about unconditional acceptance. Quite the opposite. There was no place in her life for mediocrity, nor for anyone who settled for it. “In love,” she would say, “we help each other grow.” As a philosophy, that meant we tell our friends when they are being lazy or squandering their talent. As a practical consequence, her philosophy cost her friend after friend.

To her dying day, my aunt believed in the brotherhood of man. “The older I get,” she would say, “the more I’m convinced that what the world needs is a single government.” “But Sarah,” I would say, “Under whose laws?” “Oh, Paudie,” she’d reply with the wave of a hand, “That’s a minor detail.”

“You know, Sarah,” I confided when I turned 35, “I’m beginning to think that people aren’t all that decent.” “I had hoped,” she replied, “it would be another ten years before you realized that.”

She could say that with authority, for she was a true Lover at Large. And in this world, such people are doomed to be misunderstood. “More and more,” she would say, “I conclude, ‘People are no damn good.’” But she loved them anyway.

When I was sixteen, Sarah took me to see a one-man show based on the writings of Dylan Thomas. The actor was reciting a verse addressed to the poet’s father as the father approached blindness and death: “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” My aunt gasped, then buried her face in her hands. At intermission, I asked her why. “Oh, Paudie,” she said, “life is so precious. And so brief.”

In her final years, Sarah’s health declined, and with it, her social contacts. Her life philosophy—“In love, we help each other grow”—had led to a series of rifts and mutual misunderstandings, cutting her off, until recently, from friends and siblings, whose fence-mending visits finally healed her broken heart.

n late 2001, While spending Thanksgiving with my mother and sister, I visited my aunt (photo) for what I knew would be the last time. Declining from Parkinson's Disease and accustomed to welcoming my brother, she recognized me only dimly. "Barry?"

"No, Sarah, it's Paul."

"Barry? You look like Barry but you sound like your brother." 

"It's not Barry. It's me, Paudie. You taught me how to play chess. You taught me how to live. You taught me how to love." With those indelible clues, I broke through her stupor for a brief, bittersweet farewell. Two months after that, four months after 9/11, my aunt bade her final farewell to a world unfathomably less benign the one she had entered fourscore and five years before.

aul Stregevsky with his beloved aunt Sarah Lehrer in November 2001 at her nursing home in Cincinnati

aul Stregevsky with his beloved aunt Sarah Lehrer in November 2001 at her nursing home in Cincinnati

Though a lasting romantic love eluded her in this lifetime, my aunt lived and died a consummate romantic. Many believe that Heaven speaks a universal tongue. If so, I have no doubt Sarah is already engaged in spirited debate with Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Socrates and Spinoza. 

And when her deeds were read aloud from the Book of Life, I wouldn’t be surprised if she flicked her Bic and scribbled in the margin, “All things, dear G-d, in moderation.”

That’s my Aunt Sarah. Plain and tall. 

©2000 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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