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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?  This month is a perfect time to sit down and say, “Dad, tell me your story.” Or better yet, “Grandpa, tell me your story.”

It seems that now, more than ever, when our world feels a little upside down, that learning from the past can help us navigate our futures and fathers and grandfathers are the key to that. Their stories and experiences can help us to make better decisions in our lives.

My dad as a freshman in college.

Father’s Day is the perfect chance to spend a little time with Dad or Grandpa. This is a great excuse and it doesn’t even have to be a formal setting to get the conversation started.

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 department. 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, and maybe because he thinks we don’t care (that of course is far from the truth). But there are eight people in his life who he never holds anything from – and that’s his eight grandchildren – the pride and joy of his life. Just to see my dad, he can appear to be a pretty intimidating guy. He stands at just over 6’4″ tall and is large in stature. At the age of 74, he still has a full head of dark brown hair. There is some gray thrown in there, but I can guarantee that no one in the world would guess he’s much older than about 60. He has aged well. He really is a big teddy bear, 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.

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.

My dad doing his favorite thing, being a grandpa.

So, back to the grandkids. As I mentioned, my dad is pretty quiet, but when he does talk, what he says has meaning and it is a good idea to listen. My children have learned that about their grandpa and when he spends time alone with them, he often tells them his stories. I think I have learned more about my dad through them than any other way.

In the last few years, my 16-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. My dad suffers from diabetes and some days can 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 has 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

My son Jackson with some proud grandparents the day he received his Eagle Scout award.

We didn’t know how much of this was sinking in for my son until about two 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 up for a class about family history through his job at FamilySearch. Jackson was one of the younger people there – and so imagine my husband’s surprise when they asked for people to stand and bear testimony of 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:

  1. Spending alone time with a grandparent.
  2. Hearing his stories firsthand.
  3. Having the opportunity to share those stories.
Rachel's all-time favorite digital voice recorder - the Olympus WS-852 with built-in USB connection. Click to get it on Amazon.
Rachel’s all-time favorite digital voice recorder – the Olympus WS-852 with built-in USB connection. Click to get it on Amazon.

This past spring 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.

Dad, tell me your story
My daughter Eliza listening to her grandparents tell their stories.
Dad, tell me your story
My dad telling his grandchildren one of his stories from his youth.

In these quiet moments with my kids, my dad has also born 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 has 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.

Related: Is family history for kids? Yes!

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.

This year, my family got to know my dad in a deeper, more personal way as he has battled cancer. 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 are clean and his is in remission. I always knew he was a strong man, physically, spiritually and emotionally, but watching him handle this disease with grace and dignity has made a huge impact on our family.

Related: What I’ve learned since finding out my dad has cancer

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. We have created a free printable to get the ball rolling.