I had pretty much given up on finding an appropriate gift for my dad’s 82nd birthday; the last thing he needed was more stuff. So I headed off to the family lake cabin for the 4th of July holiday (also his birthday weekend) with the thought that I’d figure out a clever celebratory idea at the last minute. Maybe some kind of game that everyone would enjoy?
The problem with that was the “everyone” involved. My brother’s four kids each brought a friend along, so 13 to 20-year-olds made up the clear majority. All of them travel at a speed that far outdistances their grandpa, and their lives revolve around completely different cultural touchstones. Not to mention that two of them seemed to have self-identified as space aliens sent to catalog the peculiar behavior of earthlings, sitting apart and observing the rest of us with a dissecting air. What kind of game could I possibly come up with that would work for this multi-generational (not to mention multi-planetary) crew?
Out of desperation, I decided to just go for it, and I scratched out a series of 10 questions about Grandpa. What major world event radically changed his life when he was a kid? What dangerous animal did he capture when he was a teenager? How many colleges kicked him out? How did he meet his wife (the Grandma we were all still mourning)? In other words, questions that translated Grandpa’s life into the concerns of a 13 to 20-year-old. Then I told the kids that they were going to work as pairs (grandchild plus friend) to answer the questions, and whoever got the most correct would win a small prize. Partway through the game, each team would have a chance to privately ask Grandpa to share stories to provide two of the answers they didn’t know.
They’re good kids. I figured they would hide their eye-rolls and play along for courtesy’s sake. Meanwhile, Grandpa would be the center of attention for a few minutes, getting to share a few of the details from his first 81 years, and it would make him feel like we’d at least taken notice of his birthday.
In all my worry about finding an appropriate way to celebrate my dad’s life, I had inexplicably forgotten the power of his stories. I’d momentarily overlooked stories’ facility for bridge-building — their capacity to create a connection between someone whose childhood was altered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the grandson whose childhood was shaped by 9⁄11. My little quiz turned into a fierce battle for story supremacy; even the space aliens couldn’t get enough. Everyone was a winner.
And this children’s book writer went home from the weekend with a reminder about the importance of the work I do on an everyday basis. Just wait, world: have I got a story for you!