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When I think of great storytellers, my dad is one of the first people who pops into my mind. I suspect that for many people, the same is true with their own fathers. It would seem that dads have this innate ability to tell a good story and when they do, the pitch in their voice changes, and the nostalgia starts to flow in, making the story rich and alive. Having said that, how many of us have heard our fathers tell their story? Now is the perfect time to sit down and say, “Dad, tell me your story.” Or better yet, “Grandpa, tell me your story.”
All of those moments of my dad telling his amazing stories took an abrupt end last December when he passed away from complications to diabetes. His health had not been good for several years prior to his death, but he seemed to always bounce back (he was a three-year cancer survivor), so we expected that to happen again in the early weeks of December 2020, but that was not to be, so now we get to tell his stories and remember his words in his absence. I am still in the mode of grief, not knowing when it will wash over me, but I also love sharing his stories and re-living those memories. It somehow makes the grief seem lighter.
If your father or grandfather is still living, I would encourage you to take the time to talk him and ask him some pointed questions about his life, give him the chance to tell his story. If he is no longer alive, take some time to remember him. Talk about your memories and tell some of his stories, even record them. The FamilySearch memories app is a great place to record your thoughts or you can even use a digital recorder. If that doesn’t feel comfortable, jot some of your thoughts down or even make a post about your dad to social media. Remembering is powerful for everyone. For me, talking about my dad feels healing and therapeutic.
Dad, tell me your story
My dad has lived several lives in one lifetime. I simply adore him in every way. He has set the bar extremely high in both the father and grandfather departments. He has always been generous to tell us his stories, but sometimes he holds back with some things – maybe because he’s humble, maybe because he’s quiet, or maybe he thought his life wasn’t interesting enough – that, of course, was far from the truth. But there are eight people in his life who he never held anything from – and that’s his eight grandchildren – the pride and joy of his life.
Just to see my dad, he appeared to be a pretty intimidating guy. He stands at just over 6’4″ tall and is large in stature. At the age of 76, he still had a full head of dark brown hair. There was some gray thrown in there, but I can guarantee that no one in the world would have guessed he’s much older than about 65. He has aged well. He really was a gentle giant, unless you make him angry – that is another story. I remember one time I mouthed off to him as a teenager and then challenged him by running away from him – surely he couldn’t (and wouldn’t) catch me. I was wrong. Within seconds, he caught me and gave me the sternest talking-to I had received up to that point in my life. My days of sassing my dad ended then. We also had a great laugh about the chase after our stern talk.
Grandparents tell all the stories to the grandkids
At a recent RootsTech conference, I spoke with Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch, about how to connect generations. He told me simply that grandparents will do just about anything for their grandchildren. There is so much truth to that and I have found that to be true in my own life – both with my own grandparents and watching my parents be grandparents.
So, back to the grandkids. As I mentioned, my dad was pretty quiet, but when did talk, what he said had meaning and it was always a good idea to listen. My children have learned that about their grandpa and when he spent time alone with them, he often told them his stories. I think I have learned more about my dad through them than any other way.
In the last few years, my 18-year-old son, Jackson, had the chance to spend some alone time with his grandpa while helping my dad with his job in circulation for a local newspaper. Jackson served as a “runner” for my dad on some days when he was extra tired. As mentioned before my dad suffered from diabetes and some days could get long for him. As the two worked they talked. Jackson learned all about my dad’s days growing up in Cleburne, Texas, a town about 40 miles northeast of the Dallas area. He learned what it was like for him to pitch left-handed, play football in the heat, work hard to earn money for the things he wanted, and how he handled life with a super strict dad in a large family.
The Stories that Stick
We didn’t know how much of this was sinking in for my son until a few years ago when he went to work with my husband. My son has a keen interest in family history and helps people in our church with the work, so my husband signed them both up for a class about family history through my husband’s job at FamilySearch.
Jackson was one of the younger people there. So imagine my husband’s surprise when they asked for people to stand and talk about experiences they have had capturing family stories in their lives and our son’s hand shot up. He then started talking about his beloved grandpa. He talked about learning to work hard and how to make and obtain goals through his sports-playing stories from his grandpa. It was a sweet experience for our family to receive three blessings from this conversation:
- Spending alone time with a grandparent.
- Hearing his stories firsthand.
- Having the opportunity to share those stories.
When the pandemic first hit, my four youngest children sat down with my parents and we recorded their voices, talking about their lives. Each child chose two questions to ask. As I listened, I learned things about both my parents I had never heard before. The kids asked questions related to what my parents were like at each of their ages. I stayed quiet as they all talked and some tears were shed about happy and sad memories. It was tender.
At the time I would have never known that my dad would no longer be with us six months later. This brings up another thought – never ignore a nudge to record a voice or story! Taking the time for those interviews was simple, easy and fun. Now I have my dad’s voice recorded to enjoy and remember and so do my children.
In these quiet moments with my kids, my dad also bore testimony of his relationship with Jesus Christ, his regrets about not getting a better education, and some of his antics when he worked in the casinos in Lake Tahoe. After he shared these things with my kids, I have tried to circle back at dinner time to have my dad expand some of these stories, adding in much of the humor that goes with it. One day we were talking when my oldest was just getting interested in football when my dad announced to us that Vince Lombardi once sent him a letter to come play for the Green Bay Packers. What? The things you will open up about and tell your grandkids!
One of my favorite stories that my dad tells is of him going to church with his Grandpa Jackson in Walnut Springs, Texas. My dad wasn’t taken to church much in his own family, so he was eager to go with his grandpa – until he went. There was a lot of commotion there and people stood on their chairs, hollering and shouting praises to the almighty. My dad, a shy, yet mischievous boy, was definitely out of his comfort zone. He turned right back around and walked out. Whenever my dad tells the story, I get the perfect picture of the place in my mind and I giggle – we all giggle – as he recreates the moment. And because of this story, I know my Great-Grandpa Jackson just a little bit better, and so do my kids. We had a four-generation moment at the dinner table.
It’s interesting the things you realize about life when looking back. About three years ago my dad was diagnosed with cancer. This was frightening for our family, as I had children in different places around the world serving LDS missions and was in the midst of raising a large family. I put much of my life on hold to take care of my dad. I had the choice privilege of driving him to many appointments and help care for him. I spent hours and hours with him as he quietly endured chemotherapy and radiation. We had quiet moments, deep conversations, and shed some quiet tears together, not knowing what the future held. After a hard six-months we got the fabulous news that his scans were clean and he was in remission.
I always knew he was a strong man, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, but watching him handle this disease with grace and dignity made a huge impact on our family. We now know his cancer at the time was our miracle. We got bonus time with him we didn’t think we would have when he was first diagnosed, he was able to see his grandchildren return from their missions and we were able to spend quality time together, cherishing the moments we had taken for granted before. While the time we had with him feels fleeting now, we definitely didn’t take it for granted and made the most of it.
Record your dad or grandpa’s story now – it will be enough!
So, you may be asking yourself, “How do I do this? How do I get my dad to tell his story?” Well, my first piece of advice – use your own children as the catalyst. Grandpas and grandchildren have this thing together, and it is magic. When they start, have the recorder ready and get it all down.
I would also suggest to not make it a big deal, make it part of your conversation. Don’t hesitate to record it, but let the feeling be light and engaging. Think of some questions you really want to know about your dad. If he lives far away try a zoom session or even an email. If he is no longer living, ask people who remember him what they remember and record those thoughts. If they have passed away, it can also be enjoyable to go around the room and each share a simple memory. In the days we had together as a family right after my dad passed away, we spent our evenings talking about him, remembering him and looking at old photos.
Looking at old photos jogs wonderful memories that are great to share and record. When we found the photos there were memories I had made with my dad that were only vague to me, that is until I saw the photos – then they came back to life and I was able to share those stories of my dad with my children. If your dad is still living this is a great activity to do as well. Photos can be a strong key to storytelling that can never be overlooked!