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.)
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.
When the children began leaving home for boarding schools in their early teens, I tried a new approach. Under the heading What Dad Does, I would, from time to time, send them copies of press releases describing projects that I was involved with, hoping that this would shed better light on the mystery of what I did every day.
Looking back, I should have known better. When I arrived in Washington nearly 50 years ago, I had attended a party at which I met a man who asked me the conventional question: "What do you do?" In response, I offered him the title of my job and the organization I worked for. The man, an experienced Washington professional, said to me: "No, no, not that. Just tell me what exactly you did today." When I had finished this recitation, a swift but detailed hour-by-hour description of what I had done that day, I realized how thoroughly I had revealed myself as well as my job. Unhappily, I seemed unwilling or unable to employ this means of explaining my life to my children.
Not surprisingly, the press release gambit was another failure. Rereading a few of these releases recently, I marveled at how spectacularly uninformative, not to say downright boring, they were. I mean, who cared that I had helped to "organize several international noncommercial television production associations"? What the kids wanted to know, one of them told me some years later, was how had I done it; what did I do? To be honest, toward the end of nearly five decades of working in public broadcasting, I myself came to the conclusion that many people in that business didn't know for sure what most of the others in the profession really did for a living, either.
Retirement brought the chance for a fresh start, or, perhaps, a last opportunity to say to the children -- and now the grandchildren: This is who I am, and here are some of the people and a lot of other influences that made me this way, and, incidentally, that may have affected you, too.
Should I embark on a memoir, perhaps? Somehow, a full-fledged autobiography seemed too tedious to write as well as to read. I have been exposed to enough autobiographies, written by well-meaning elderly people I know -- no small number of whom had attended classes on how to write them -- to recognize that even the best of these are characterized by long slogs through years during which nothing seemed to happen. ("This was the year we decided to spend some part of our summer holiday time in Maine. Somehow, however, we didn't calculate how tough it would be to pull a rented trailer all the way north to Southwest Harbor. What with the four children and the two dogs, it turned out to be quite . . .") I once met a nonagenarian who told me that he had written such a book in his late sixties, publishing it privately in a limited edition. When the 50 copies he sent to family and close friends met with an equally limited, not to mention tepid, response, he placed the remaining 200 copies in a dark corner of his attic, where he found them some 20 years later. "Even the mice couldn't get through them," he said ruefully. I was going to spare myself that kind of gloomy fate.
Such were the experiences that set the stage for publication of the Grampaland Journal, a four-page quarterly newsletter, now in its second year. The first issue of Grampaland carried the following explanation on the cover: "Note: This is the inaugural issue of Grampaland Journal, a periodic publication designed to bridge the generations with writing drawn from a variety of past and contemporary sources and distributed to a limited readership. Contributions are welcome. -- The Editors." It has a circulation of 18 -- children, grandchildren and a few other relatives. The readership's ages range from 5 years old to 76. (I am 78.)
This, of course, is only one of the ways I communicate with my immediate family. Others include frequent phone calls with my four grown children and teenage daughter, visits when the older children are in Washington, remembrances and limericks sent on birthdays. But Grampaland is a way of passing along information about books and articles I have read and enjoyed, as well as ideas and observations from my life experience that I never quite found a way to share with them before.
I try to maintain a careful balance in the content, avoiding the common mistake of proselytizing. A close friend once told me that, when she was an undergraduate, her father sent a continuing stream of news clippings and other articles fostering conservative causes. It was the chief reason, she now believes, that she became a lifelong Democrat.
I am by nature reticent, and the direct approach rarely seems as effective as something more oblique. Therefore, if some of what I report offers lessons, that's for my readers to decide. If any of it is amusing or instructive, so much the better.
Because I am now blind, a close female companion -- an editor before her retirement -- helps to edit and publish each issue. As my sight has failed, and my ability to see what I have written even in very large handwriting has collapsed, I continue to write with a felt-tipped pen in school notebooks (I never learned to type). I have written this way all my life and thus am able to space the lines on the page more or less legibly. When I have produced the equivalent of a dozen paragraphs, my partner reads the handwritten work back to me, and together we edit the draft. She then types the material. Once the entire piece is completed, we go back over it making more edits.
This arrangement has given me immense satisfaction, for, although I am occasionally overruled by my editor, I do decide upon most of the content. What's more, as a lifelong part-time freelance writer, I find it a joy to no longer wait for capricious editors to accept or reject my material, or tell me when it will be published.
A recent Grampaland Journal included a report about the birds heard from the back porch (white-throated sparrow, phoebe, goldfinch, etc.) and a short remembrance about a remarkable graduate student year at Columbia University, during which I concentrated so intensely upon Elizabethan life and literature that I began to think, and, to some extent, act, like someone living in London near the end of the 17th century. This description of one year of my life was largely designed to tell a story that would reveal how early enthusiasms can foster lifelong interests.
Grampaland embraces about the same amount of self-admiration that appears in most published autobiographical material. My brief account of nearly drowning in a typhoon off the Philippines during World War II made a recent issue, partly because it's a good sea story and partly because I thought it would be interesting to at least nine of the readers (my children and grandchildren) to know that they would not be reading it -- or anything else -- if the small Navy tug I was on had not had a wooden, and relatively buoyant, hull.
In addition, and importantly, I wrote about this adventure to convey the immense value of work, something that probably saved my life and those of others on the boat. The following is the conclusion of the story:
"Deconstructing the activities of that stormy night, it is now apparent to me that it was Dooley [the second in command] who ordered the cable cut and Dooley who knew that if we were all at work to make the ship lighter, there was much less chance that anyone would be overcome by fear; there would be fewer accidents and mistakes, less carelessness.
"When we reached San Francisco, where the tug was to be decommissioned, the crew members received their discharge orders one by one over a period of a month or so. The captain got his reassignment orders almost immediately. Soon there were only a few on board, Dooley and several others. As I was standing at the rail, my sea bag over my shoulder, he came up to say goodbye and wish me good luck. I kidded him about being one of the last of us to leave.
" 'Well,' he said, running his eye over the tug, 'there's always a lot of work to be done on a little ship like this.' Then he smiled and said, 'Work is hard. No work is harder.' It's a remark I've never forgotten."
Besides such stories, I enjoy writing limericks and light verse, and some of this has made its way into the newsletter. A lifelong, more quixotic, amusement of mine also featured in Grampaland is mathematical probabilities and calculations. For example, I calculated in 1968 that if I lived to be 85 I would spend a total of three years shaving, something that led me to grow a full beard.
Each reader has his or her own interests, fortified by other forms of communication, not the least of which is the Internet. While I cling to the time-honored notion that my presence is of paramount value to all my descendants, I would be the first to concede that what I write competes with the many influences in their lives.
Early reaction to the journal suggested mild enthusiasm, but I still wasn't sure how it was being received until a recent family reunion. The boys I once overheard discussing my vocation are now in their forties and fifties, with children of their own. I've been retired for nearly 10 years. The sons were home for Christmas, and one afternoon their wives had taken the children for a walk while they sat in front of the TV watching football, the sound turned low, in the living room. Beer in hand, I was about to join them, when I heard one of them saying, ". . . but he wasn't very responsive."
"I had the same problem," said his older brother, who is himself a writer. "I'd sent him this short essay. I thought it was pretty funny. I thought he might want to publish it, but he said he wasn't sure -- he'd think about it. Sounds as if he's beginning to think he's editing The New Yorker." There were amused snorts all around, and their attention returned to the Redskins game.
Just outside the door, I took a sip of beer and smiled. The question of what Dad does had finally been resolved.
David Stewart lives near Middleburg, Va.