Dad: The Periodical

By David Stewart
Sunday, June 19, 2005

I should not have been listening. But that fact only encouraged my eavesdropping, and I pressed my ear closer to the door. Inside, my three young sons were whispering conspiratorially.

"He goes to the office," said the youngest.

"We know that, dummix," said the eldest. "But what does he do there?"

"Yeah," the middle son said. "That's just it. What does Dad do?"

"He's an administrator," the youngest persisted. "I heard him say it." This was met by loud, dismissive snorts.

Dismayed, I slipped away, down the carpeted steps, surprised to feel so suddenly remorseful: Here I was, after nearly 14 years of marriage, three sons and a daughter, with a reasonably good job, and none of them knew what I did for a living. I had let them down somehow. And what about me? If I had died the next day, I would probably have been a cipher to both children and grandchildren. This was either a case of outright neglect or carelessness, urgently in need of a remedy.

There was plenty of evidence that such a slide into insignificance could happen within a family. After my parents' divorce, when I was 18, my father -- always a remote figure in my life -- seemed to disappear without a trace. I knew where he was, but his infrequent, formal correspondence was altogether unrevealing of his past or new life. And he took little interest in mine. On a vacation in Florida, my children met him for the first time. They addressed him formally as "Mr. Stewart." It was an awkward encounter, somewhat surreal and sad.

Now, after overhearing my sons' conversation, I was determined not to allow such estrangement to seep into the next generation. So I decided to describe tidbits from my professional life during family dinners.

"Guess who I had lunch with today?" I announced at the table one evening, naming a well-known film star. "You may have seen him on TV." (These attempts occurred during the mid-1960s, when I was helping to establish the American Film Institute and meeting a number of leading actors and directors.)

Silence.

Before I could fully explain who the actor was, the children excused themselves politely, and were out the door. And so it went. I tried this several times with the same results. Entirely unsatisfactory and somewhat humiliating.

Because of my job with the National Endowment for the Arts, I had easy access to 16mm versions of many feature films, cartoons and children's movies, which I brought home and screened several nights a week for the whole family. (This was well before movies could be rented on video.) It was clear that their enjoyment of the films greatly surpassed any interest they might have in my association with the people in them. In retrospect, I am pleased that they did not develop a taste for celebrity, but at the time I was somewhat dismayed that my personal acquaintance with some Hollywood figures was so easily dismissed.


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