Written by Andrew Eddmenson
“I’m trying to remember what came next…”
Leo looked up from his sheet of paper. “I just have these little memories. I guess that’s all life really is when it comes down to it.”
“You know,” I replied, “I think the best stories are told out of order.”
When I first arrived at Evergreen Retirement Community, the room was full of other residents and teenagers sitting at tables across from one another just as Leo and I were. All of us were part of a wonderful project called Write Your Life, which pairs high school students and young professionals with senior citizens to help them write their life stories. The room was full, but after just a few moments of small talk, I forgot anyone else was there.
At 82, Leo Karner is “just a young punk around this place.” Originally from California, he moved to Wisconsin after suffering a stroke to be closer to his grandchildren. Clearly a skilled socialite, Leo carries the conversation. His sly smile leads you to believe he knows some marvelous secret no one else knows. He writes incredibly well despite his dyslexia and gnarled arthritic hands, but lets me do most of the writing to make me feel useful, I suspect.
At this point, we’re only brainstorming significant events, people, and accomplishments – a lifelong highlight reel that previews the rich stories to come. Leo takes small detours along the way, but I don’t mind: Begging his mom for a bicycle and getting a used one for three dollars with tires that only lasted a block and a half before going flat (school was about five blocks away); finding out his favorite hobby store was closing due to a burglary shortly before the neighbor kid offered to sell him some “discounted” model airplane engines; getting a flat tire during a cross-country road trip with three of his best friends and the devious events that followed. It doesn’t take long for me to realize what a tremendous opportunity I’ve been given—and that Leo has incredibly bad luck with tires.
My own grandfather passed away in 1996 from lung cancer. In all of the memorable moments we shared, I never took the opportunity to ask him about his life and write down his stories. To be fair, I was far too young and expectedly self-absorbed to recognize this prospect before it was too late. As I sat across from Leo and learned about his early life today, I came to realize how precious these stories are and how important it is that they not be lost forever due to the indifference of a younger generation.
I may never be able to capture all of my grandfather’s stories, but I now have a chance to capture Leo’s stories for his grandchildren who will undoubtedly cherish them one day. Life has a funny way of giving us second chances, and they aren’t without their irony. As it happens, my grandfather was also named Leo.