Excerpt from What If God Wrote Your Bucket List? by Jay Payleitner
Uncover Secrets of Generations Past
The year I was born, my mom’s parents moved from Beloit, Wisconsin, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a secret government job. The year was 1957, and the nuclear arms race was coming of age. No one in the family, not even Grandma, knew what Orlando Mauel did. Fifteen years earlier, the supersecret lab at nearby Los Alamos had been ground zero for research for the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to produce the atomic weapons that effectively ended World War II. Family lore suggests that Grandpa Mauel worked at Sandia National Laboratories, a branch of Los Alamos.
Setting aside for a moment any controversy about nuclear power and government secrets, it’s cool to consider the secret lives of our recent ancestors. Not our parents. We know too much about them. But take a moment to consider the exploits and adventures of your grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, or even great-grandparents. Most of us have some memories of those generations, albeit clouded by images of their gray hair, slow-moving joints, and recently discovered personas as retirees.
Plus, anytime you were with your grandparents, they were, by definition, grandparents. Hard-charging CEOs, gruff steelworkers, disciplined operating-room nurses, and gritty journalists all turn to mush when they hold their grandbabies. In other words, most people wouldn’t even recognize their grandparents at the peak of their productive years. Find a black-and-white photo of your granny or granddad on the job, and you won’t recognize the look in their eyes.
All of which opens our imagination to who they were and what they accomplished. Let’s play that game for a moment. Consider what you know for sure about your grandparents, and throw out any negative baggage. Spin a yarn that paints Meemaw and Papa in the absolute best light. Were they the first of their family to graduate, own a home, or launch a business? Did they move across the globe or country to start a new life? Were they more engineer or artist? What role did God play in their lives? Were they motivated by fame, fortune, or family? Did they own any patents, play any instruments, run for office, or serve as church elders? Were they bobby-soxers in the 1940s, beatniks in the ’50s, or hippies in the ’60s? What did they read, watch, write, play, sing, build, buy, and sell? What kind of things were on their bucket lists?
If Gram or Gramps is around, ask them. You might learn something. There’s a reason the Bible tells us, “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged” (Leviticus 19:32 NLT).
Internet research and websites like ancestry.com can augment and prompt memories from older relatives. “What do you remember about your Aunt Dorothy who grew up in Yonkers?” is a more engaging question than “Tell me about your relatives.”
In my youth, third- or fourth-grade students often tackled the popular “family tree” assignment with enthusiasm. Entire extended families would get involved in sharing memories of long-gone relatives, unusual jobs, memorable neighborhoods, and anecdotes, including some that had never been passed on. Those homework assignments are no longer as common. An increase in divorce, single parenthood, advanced reproductive technology, and alternative lifestyles has led some educators to reevaluate that curriculum, according to the New York Times.
The most entrenched and problematic of these assignments, teachers, school administrators and psychologists said, is the classic family tree, which requires pupils to trace maternal and paternal ancestral lines …
Some educators have reacted to the evolving family constellations by scrapping the family tree altogether, while others … have modified it. Teachers now assign family time lines, family orchards and essays that give children more freedom in telling their personal histories.7
Such changes in our schools and culture remind us of an even greater need today for families to be intentional about reviving the art of conversation—at dinner tables, on porches, around fireplaces, and strolling down gravel roads. That’s how life, history, dreams, and faith are best shared.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
Personally, I’ll always be glad for my daughter’s assignment to interview a relative. Rae Anne captured some audio of my dad sharing stories of World War II he had never mentioned before. It’s a cherished recording. On one of my own grandmother’s last Thanksgiving meals at my home, I spurred her to share some memories. Knowing she was born in 1900, I asked about the first time she saw an airplane. Her face lit up as she recalled hanging laundry in her backyard with her mom and being awestruck at the sight of a biplane overhead.
A friendly reminder. Conversations like these need to happen sooner rather than later.
To finish that nudge, allow me to give you a three-part assignment. First, if you have any grandparents still with us, make a point to follow through even before the next family holiday. Second, if that generation has passed on, ask your own parents about their parents. Encourage them to move beyond superficial memories. If it’s painful, don’t push it. But you may well be initiating the best conversation you have all year. Finally, share a few amusing or engaging things you remember about your grandparents or parents with a few members of the youngest generation in your family. Keep it mostly positive, winsome, and filled with hope.
Checking the List
We have a responsibility to preserve our family history and honor the contributions of our ancestors. Often, proud parents will go overboard extolling the accomplishments of the youngest family members while Grandma and Grampa nod and applaud. That’s not a bad thing. Grandparents love to brag about their grandkids. But let’s make sure the entire family listens with love as living history gets passed down.
Celebrating traditions and sharing life-changing moments unites families and keeps them strong. Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.” Have you ever asked your parents or grandparents how and when they have seen God work in their lives?
Connect the generations.
After spending more than a decade writing and producing commercials, Jay Payleitner turned to writing and has written more than 25 books. including 52 Things Kids Need from a Dad, What If God Wrote Your Bucket List? and The Jesus Dare, selling more than a half-million copies. Jay and his high school sweetheart, Rita, live in St. Charles, Illinois, where they raised five awesome kids, loved on ten foster babies, and are cherishing grandparenthood. Track him down at jaypayleitner.com.
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