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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

The Birthday Surprise

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.

ph_lb_dad_erinThey’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!

8 Responses to The Birthday Surprise

  1. David LaRochelle August 18, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    This story brought tears to my eyes, Lisa. What a wonderful idea…and you wouldn’t even have to wait till an 81st birthday to do this! Thank you!

  2. Lisa Bullard August 18, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

    Thank you so much in return, David–that means an awful lot to me, coming from someone who I know is both a powerful storyteller AND an inventive game creator!

  3. Joanne Toft August 19, 2016 at 10:38 am #

    What a great idea! We just celebrate an 80th birthday with a group of 7 little ones in tow. This would have been perfect. The two smallest of our group would love just being in a story circle and the older ones would have loved hearing the tales of Grandpa. Maybe this is our Thanksgiving game! Thanks for much for sharing!

    • Lisa Bullard August 19, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      I’m so glad that it inspired you, Joanne–I hope that your family enjoys it as much as mine did!

  4. Jane Heitman Healy August 20, 2016 at 8:56 pm #

    Absolutely wonderful! Thankful that all players were willing to play and share and learn and grow together, and thankful that you shared this great idea with us!

    • Lisa Bullard August 21, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      Thank you, Jane, for this lovely feedback!

  5. Lynette Christensen August 22, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

    Lisa, Great observations about the group assembled and I have to know…what dangerous animal did he capture and how did he meet your mother?

    • Lisa Bullard August 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      Good questions, Lynette! When he was still a teenager in Texas (perhaps because he WAS still a teenager and therefore his frontal lobe was not yet fully connected), my dad was trained in how to capture rattlesnakes by a man who sold their venom for medical study. It’s a good thing that I was a low-risk kid, since it didn’t exactly put him in the position of lecturing us about “safety first” issues once he was a father himself to teenagers! My mom’s college roommate was from the same town in Texas (my mom was from Minnesota), and shortly after graduating my mom moved there for a change. The college roommate knew my dad and set the two of them up on a blind date for a football game. The rest, as they say, is “his story.”

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