Eyes on Personal History

optometrist’s columns took turn, became memoir

Gigi Roelant

Once a month for eight years, Eau Claire optometrist Bert Moritz published true short stories about his life in a column in The Senior Review newspaper. Sixty-seven of those stories have been compiled in a recently published book, Adventures of a South Dakota Kid. There’s an understated beauty to each moment of truth, each humbling life lesson found in these pages.

A column that started as a way to share eye-care tips took on a new life when Moritz was asked by his editor to write something for National Alzheimer’s Month. He decided to write about his father, who he had watched live and struggle with the disease. As Moritz says about the stories in his book, “You never know what you’re going to do in life that is suddenly going to have a big effect on you.” For Moritz and the readers who’ve had the pleasure of strolling down memory lane with him, shifting the column to personal subjects was just such a moment.

That shift opened the floodgates. His patients started to talk to him about his stories during their appointments, and conversely Moritz had more to share as well. And what a full life to reflect upon: He’s resided at more than 38 addresses, lived in 10 towns before he got out of high school, and attended four colleges. He spent time in the U.S. Army and overseas. The man brims with life experiences in our interview. They skitter in the open spaces between us, evoking my own memories, and leading our interview off track for a little while as we converse.

Let it be known that Adventures of a South Dakota Kid isn’t a linear, off-the-shelf autobiography; it’s no family history. It’s a collection of moments of heart, of love, of loss, of discovery, and of humor all thrown together with a beautifully haphazard grace that speaks to how memory really works: Not a line but a jumble of sights and sounds and emotions, of moments that matter.

Bert Moritz
Bert Moritz

As Moritz picked through his life, he says, he limited himself to stories that personally affected him but that other people could relate to in at least a superficial way. “It was in my memory, and I felt it was important enough; I had emotional feelings about it that I wanted to bring that out,” he says. Just because the stories aren’t put together with linear progression in mind doesn’t mean the book lacks purpose or intent.

“I feel like this book has two levels of theme: One theme would be the adventure of growing up, maturing, learning, and from those things how we develop who we are as individuals,” Moritz confides. “And then below that I’m hoping the readers will pick up an underlying theme – especially in the section about my father with Alzheimer’s – that he became less of a person as he was losing his identity, losing what made him special in his memories. And there’s of course tragedy in that, that’s part of the tragedy of that disease. All of us, we have some memories; we enjoy life, we become a certain kind of person, and we like to pass that on to another generation. And in some ways Alzheimer’s takes some of that away.”

But the section of stories Moritz includes about his father captures him with unfettered personality. Even as he writes about his passing, the tale brims with life. Each story about Moritz’s father, whether funny or tragic, demands that the reader take a moment and remember him. And we do. His identity is saved in the pages of Adventures of a South Dakota Kid, and perhaps – taking in the smile Moritz gives me when I share this thought – that was the intention all along.

Adventures of a South Dakota Kid is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.