His name is Ken Brandt. He lives in Delafield Wisconsin in a lovely little house and property that he bought shortly before he retired around ten years ago. When he bought the property it was over run with weeds and bushes from years of neglect by whoever owned it before him. He started working on making a garden and beautifying the place but was struck with a severe stroke several years ago that put his work to a halt. While he was in the hospital receiving care for the effects of his stroke, he had to have a stint put in an artery leading to his heart to allow the blood flow in the way it was originally designed to do. Three weeks after that his appendix exploded and he had to have surgery to save his life from the effects of that. His life was in danger of ending right then. The stroke severely hampered his ability to move and he was placed in a nursing home for long term care. He began pining for his home in Delafield and for the garden that he wanted to finish. At some point during his care he was allowed home for a day to visit. The home visits grew into two and three days and before long he was allowed to go home for good. He testifies that it was doing a little bit of work in his garden each time he went home and the insatiable desire to get it finished in the manner he wanted, that hastened, even permitted, his healing to take place. He so wanted to make that garden a thing of beauty and was so taken up with wanting to get it finished that it aided in his recovery. Something to look forward to. Something to hope for. The walker eventually gave way to a cane and now he still puts in flower and vegetable gardens every year from seed he saves from his plants and keeps over the winter. He hasn’t purchased a seed in years.
The thing that attracted our attention to his property as Heather and I walked past his house was the number and variety of plants and flowers. The planning and layout is remarkable. Then we noticed the sign that this garden has been recognized as a natural habitat. We were in Delafield to spend the week at a Pastor’s Retreat Network retreat centre for pastors needing a break. We had arrived quite early and had decided to take a walk around the town. As we strolled past Ken’s house he noticed us from inside his house and came out to greet us. “Come to the back and see some more”, he said. He showed us the “banzai” trees he had formed by trimming back his cedar bushes. He showed us the artificial pond stocked with gold fish and the miniature waterfall, the bird houses and feeders. He told us of the joy he gets watching, from the bathroom window, the mother birds feeding their young. Robins this year.
Ken’s father came to the U.S as a World War I refugee in 1917 and settled in Appleton Wisconsin. Ken would grow up there and owned and operated a store in Appleton until his retirement. Most of his father’s family had stayed in Germany and he grew up seeing his father package up provisions to send to his family there. After World War II his relatives were trapped behind the iron curtain and the packages kept being sent. He still speaks German fluently even though he has never lived there.
He spent years helping a close friend who had Parkinson’s disease get over the trauma of that affliction by getting him working in his garden. His friend would tell Ken what to do and Ken would reply “This is your garden, not mine. You do it”. His friend would grumble, but he eventually did it himself. When his friend finally succumbed to the disease he left Ken some money and a note thanking him for getting him out of his bitterness and isolation by creating in him a love for beautifying a place with plants.
Ken loves Cocker Spaniels and the three he has in the house now are a grandmother, mother and daughter. The great grandmother died last December. One of his dogs is a “therapy dog”. He takes the dog to seniors homes to spend time with the residents there. Ken was warned not to try to do anything with a certain lady at the home but the dog gravitated to her and she started asking for him to come and visit. She improved so dramatically from the therapy offered by the dog that she was able to leave the home and live in her own with her daughter again.
Ken simply beams with delight as he tells Heather and I these and stories. He speaks of the value of community and that if everyone would simply use their abilities for the good of their neighbours then what a much better world it would be. He should know. He has helped make some people’s world a little better. A few years ago he convinced the ruling council of his church to turn a piece of their property into a community garden. People from Delafield are welcome to use a patch as their garden and as long as they work it, they are welcome to garden it as their own. Neglect it and it will be given to someone else who will use it. “The Good Lord gave us abilities to be used and if we don’t use them the way they are meant to be used then we are mistreating the world.”
We were with him for an hour or so and it was one of the best hours of my life. A complete stranger came out to encourage two wanderers who were admiring the fruit of his labours. When we left, which was not easy to do, he thanked us for “making my day”. I tell him that my name is Ken as well and that gets him going on some new stories. “You know what Ken means?” I do, and I tell him – knowledge, intelligence. “Understanding” Ken adds. He is thrilled that I knew that and off he starts again. I suspect that the neighbours are watching him and us talking and saying “Ken’s found some fresh meat to chew on”. We know that he probably does this a lot. We know that some of the stories may be embellished a little. We know that this is a lonely old man who longs to tell his story to anyone who will listen. If they have to be visitors from over a thousand kilometres away then that is fine. Ken doesn’t ask us any questions about who we are or what we are up to. It isn’t important to him although he does seem impressed when Heather tells him that I am a pastor of a church. The language gets a little less colourful after that.
Ken wants to talk. He wants to tell people about himself. Call this selfishness and self-importance if you like, but you would be wrong. It is a desire to be heard. It is a longing for company. It is wanting to pass on a few of the lessons that seventy-five years of living have given a man and feeling the waste if no one else gets to benefit from them. It is having a sense of accomplishment about some of the things that have been accomplished and wanting others to know it. It would be a shame for no one else but the few in Delafield to know about Ken Brandt. So, I share a little bit of his story with you. We are planning to write Ken when we get back home. Maybe we’ll send him pictures of our garden or just get to know him better through correspondence. Kind of nice to have to write a letter with a pen and paper to a man who has no computer and will have the excitement of picking a real letter out of his mail box. And it is thrilling to think that we just might make it into one of his stories as he comes out of his house to greet some passers by who have stopped to admire his garden.
What seniors do you know who up until now you have never spent quality time with and just sat at their feet as they told stories that will be gone from the planet when they die? Let me encourage you to ask them questions about their life’s adventures, their accomplishments and failures, their joys and their sorrows. You won’t be disappointed. And you will do more for them than you will ever know.