Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, July 29, 2012
      ( 7/29/2012 04:37:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DAD: It’s rarely good when you receive a call on your personal phone late at night, and the one we received last night was one we’d been dreading. It was my sister Barb in Wisconsin, calling to tell me that my father Robert Sherman passed away after returning home from the hospital. He’d gone in over a week ago after a choking incident had led to his aspirating food into his lungs, leading to complications. Once in the hospital, he’d lapsed into a coma and when he came out, he wasn’t the same. Per my sister, his system had started failing and it was only a matter of time before it failed altogether. The doctors couldn’t give a time line other than “sooner or later,” and for him it turned out to be sooner.

I hadn’t seen my father much over the past years: I could say that distance was the reason (he and his second wife Bonnie lived outside of Washington DC where he’d worked in his final years until retirement; we live in Arizona), but the reality is I hadn’t seen him all that often when we lived much closer to each other. Father/son relationships can be complicated and contentious at times -- and we went through our share of hard moments.

My dad was of the post-war generation who saw their primary duty as one of working to make a safe and comfortable life for their family. A salesman for Union Carbide’s plastics division in the fifties and early sixties, he had a job that took him on the road for days at a time. I have a lot of memories of my father returning home from a two- or three-day trip, plopping down in his chair with a martini to unwind from the drive. He didn’t have a lot of patience with his bookish, unathletic son -- one of my earliest recollections is of him stomping off in frustration over the slowness with which I learned to ride a bike without training wheels -- though he did make efforts to connect with me, most happily for a year or so when I was a boy scout in Connecticut.

Another favorite memory I have of my father is a silly one, though I know it had an impact on many of the things I still love: him standing in front of the large stereo cabinet on a Sunday afternoon, making like a conductor to the “New World Symphony.” Even now the thought of that can make me smile.

We had a major falling out after I went to Illinois State University. It was the late sixties, and my Eisenhower-style Republican father had no use for the left wing direction I had chosen. Not too surprisingly, my workaholic father’s big concern was whether the choices I was making at the time would render me forever unemployable -- and there were moments, I suspect, when that worry was a legitimate one. (The time I nearly got myself expelled from ISU for some foolish behavior during a school employees’ strike, for instance.) I still recall the angry letter he sent me back then, which threatened, “If school can’t make a man out of you, maybe the army will.”

Over time, as the tempers of the era cooled down, my relationship with my dad improved, though it never grew close. While I still was in college, he divorced my mother, an act that had more impact on my younger brother Tony than it did me. Whenever we saw each other or spoke to each other on the phone, the bulk of the conversation would be about our jobs. Even when he retired from the plastics industry organization where he’d spent his last years of full employment, he continued to work as a consultant for years. Last time I saw him face to face was on a stop by our house in Central Illinois, and what I mainly remember from the visit was his talking about the state of the plastics biz.

The past few years, my father had been struggling with Alzheimer’s, and though it was being somewhat managed with medication, it definitely added another obstacle. I remember more than one long-distance phone conversation with my father where he would begin confusing me with my younger brother. Forced to slow down by age and loss of memory, my dad was more family focused in his conversations. He’d remarried and much of this family was his second wife Bonnie’s, but that fact never bothered me.

At this point, the fact of my father’s passing still hasn’t fully connected with me. That’s typical of our whole lives’ relationship, I think, and perhaps it holds for a lot of other Baby Boomers and their fathers. I have to admit there are still times I can hear and see him coming out in me, though (I’ve definitely carried on his capacity for whip-snap frustration and anger). No matter how apart we were and will continue to be, I know that I’ve still got my father with me. . .


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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