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Archive for the ‘Family history’ Category

With a four-year-old boy in tow I had one more stop to make before going home: the produce stand.  “Can I buy some gum?” he asked.  “No,” I said. “You’ve had enough treats from the other stores.  You don’t need anything else.   Disappointed a bit, but accepting my decision he was, in fact, a very good little guy, obedient, polite, considerate and a joy in my life.  I filled the basket with fruits and vegetables and stood in line to be checked out.

Before we got to the cash register I noticed the lower section of the open counter was filled with all sorts of tempting goodies.  I looked at my small son and shook my head to remind him that I had already said, “No.”   The clerk bagged my purchases and placed them back into the shopping cart, which I wheeled across the parking lot to the car.  There was barely room in the trunk for my week’s supply of groceries,  but I managed to find spots for these last purchases.  Then we could go home. 

He climbed into the front seat, sitting quietly next to me as I turned the key in the ignition.  With just a bit of trepidation, my loving little boy handed  me a wrapped piece of pink bubble gum and said, “Here, mom, I got me some gum and I got you a piece too.”  The engine died.   My sweet, thoughtful child had swiped me a piece of gum.   His first undirected gift for me was stolen property.   So, right there in the car, he got the lecture about stealing, as best delivered to a four-year-old, then the directions:  “I’ll go with you,” I said, “but you must return these two pieces of gum to the store and you must tell the man at the cash register that you took them without permission, without payment and you are sorry.”   Standing in front of the clerk he mumbled his apology and confessed his crime.  I was the one who wanted to cry. 

The theft happened  many years ago.  My little boy is all grown up now with a family of his own, and apparently has kept his nose clean.  So much so that he is a councilman and a rotating mayor for his small city.

Today Ken and I went grocery shopping.  Like his own little boy of long ago, helping is his speciality.  Together we meandered through the supermarket stopping at produce first.  I select, he bags and arranges the items in the cart in a very methodical manner.  Alzheimer’s seems to do that to the brain.  He is very compulsive — almost obsessive — about arranging things in his own way.   That’s okay because he feels good when he has accomplishing something.  At the checkout stand, he asked if he could put everything on the conveyor belt, so I stepped behind the cart and handed him the hard-to-reach items.   Step by step we went through the process: scan, ring up, pay the bill and down the conveyor belt where the customers in this store bag their own groceries.  I bagged and Ken filled the cart.  Keeping my eyes on the adjoining conveyor belt, as well as ours, I had to remind him several times  that those other items were not ours.   

Finished, Ken rolled the cart into the parking lot and over to our car.  Tailgate down, we emptied the cart item by item revealing an extra something underneath it all.  There on the bottom of the cart lay a four inch stack of plastic grocery bags which had been placed on the bagging shelf waiting to be hung on the rack for customer convenience, and Ken took them — like son, like father — but he didn’t say anything about taking them for me.   No gift intended.  Naturally, he assumed they were just something else we bought, and was ready to stuff the loot in our car.  “No,” I said, “leave them in the cart.  They belong back in the store.”  I put Ken inside the car, fastened his seat belt, closed the door and told him to wait for me there. 

 So what do I say once I get inside?   Something like, “My husband took these shopping bags by mistake and I’m bringing them back?”  Certainly it was the truth, and they would understand about him having AD but I didn’t want to go there.  I was tired and just wanted to go home.   Pushing the cart with its incriminating evidence through the exit as someone was leaving, I looked around.  Everyone was busy and no one seemed concerned with the contents of my cart, and there, right in front of me was an empty checkout stand and an empty shelf with an empty rack just waiting for a stack of bags.  Quick as a shot I removed the bags from my cart, plopped them on the shelf and I was gone.  No explanation needed, nor was there a  need for the  childhood lecture about stealing.  In his dementia, even the trip to the store was already forgotten.

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My father in law, Nick Romick, immigrated to America when he was 15 arriving at Ellis Island in 1906. Coming into the harbor the fresh-faced boy stood at ship’s rail with other newcomers as the Statue of Liberty came into view, his young body full of emotion: excitement, trepidation — he wasn’t sure. The awesome thing about his trip was that he came alone with only a pack on his back.  Fortified with a burning desire to “come to America,” he left Austria with the blessings from his widower father and a loan of $50. to pay for the voyage, which he promised to return. From that point he was on his own.

Through the long process of immigration with thousands of other Europeans who poured through the Island’s gates, Nick stepped into New York City with his last name Americanized from Romic’ to Romich, the first of two changes. Furthermore, his only knowledge of English was, “Mr. Man, Give me job.” Fortunately, a farmer from upstate New York answered his plea and offered him work. For the next few years the industrious young man repaid his benefactor with an honest day’s labor for an honest dollar. He studied, taught himself English, saved the dollars, and then struck out to explore the new immense land.

Nick rode the rails in boxcars, worked in Detroit as a sandhog and in the mines of Montana and Bingham Canyon. Always moving on, he continually looked beyond the next horizon. It wasn’t by chance that he found himself in Pueblo, Colorado where there was work at the steel mill. Still loving his new country, he also missed the old country; the people, the customs and the language of his youth. During his wanderings he had heard of a large Slovenian community in Pueblo and at 22 he thought it time to settle down.

New man on the job, Nick was befriended by the Perse brothers, who invited the lonely man to their home for dinner. Other than the two older brothers, the offspring of Pete and Mary Perse numbered 14 in all, seven boys and seven girls. Comfortable in their midst, Nick couldn’t help but notice beautiful Rose, then only 10. With eyes for no other, Nick left his new-found friends and joined the U. S. Marines. Knowingly, the choice took him away from Colorado and through his enlistment Nick earned his citizenship.

Six years later he returned again to visit the Perse family after serving in Guam and China where the corps guarded the American Legation. Rose was 16. The two developed “an understanding” while he was on leave.  Returning to China for an additional two years before his discharge, Nick returned to Pueblo where Rose was waiting.

The two married in spite of the 12 years age difference with the family’s blessings. “You’re not going back to the mill,” Rose told her new husband, “We’re going to California.” Loretta was their first born with Kenneth following two years later. Nick worked at several odd jobs, eventually, finding permanent employment at Block Tannery in Berkeley where he remained until his retirement, never losing one day’s work throughout the depression.

When I met Ken I also met his family. I found Nick’s stories fascinating and agreed with Bob, their neighbor, who advised Ken and Loretta to write down, or  record in some way,  Nick’s adventures. “He’s a remarkable man,” Bob reminded the two. Young and foolish, they dismissed the advice complaining they had listened to their father’s stories all of their lives and if they didn’t hear them ever again, it would be too soon.

Years later, the editor of the magazine section of our local newspaper assigned me to write about an immigrant who came to America with a pack on his back. Search though we did, we found none — other than my father in law. In spite of the nepotism, Jerry said, “Do it.” I knew that Nick was forgetting the present, but hoped he would recall enough of his early life to make a good article. Through the years I heard most of Nick’s stories myself. Sitting together, I began my interview.  He was pleased that someone wanted to listen and spoke freely about China and his father, of his voyage, but when I asked detailed questions about Austria, upstate New York, Detroit, Montana, Bingham Canyon, his answer was always the same. With furrowed brow, he would say, “I don’t remember.”   The brief article of Nick’s life which spanned the better part of a century was a perfect size for the magazine. However, for the family it was only a portion; the rest of the story, like my mother’s recipe for rolls was gone — held captive within the prison of his padlocked brain.

Somehow, we believe that memory will last, sharp and clear, as long as life itself, and by some kind of self-imposed denial we also believe that life itself will continue day after day just as it is now; that there will always be time to sit and listen to the tales of those who came before; that Alzheimer’s and other devastating brain diseases are something that happens to other people, but none of  that is true.  Loved ones pass on, time for doing runs out and for so many, memory is stolen away like a thief in the night leaving all to wish and wonder about the past, our own roots and remembering the hundreds of curious questions which were never asked and will forever remain without answers.

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The age-old question prevails:  If you had to leave your home forever with only minutes to spare what would you take?  Important documents usually heads the list, then family photos and videos where a visual history of family exists.  And if you’re lucky, there will be a scramble for the written histories of generations past; histories that remind us who we are and where we came from.

My family has been blessed with some histories.  Unfortunately, they’re out of balance when it comes to male and female.  Women seem to be the historians rather than the men.  In two of my previous BLOGS I brought to mind a tidbit about my mother in The Recipe, and The Great Adventure, a very condensed history of my father-in-law’s life.  While it’s easy to say Nick’s children should have written his story, it’s better to say Nick should have written his own story; at least he should have put down as much on paper as he could, and early on, allowing  someone to help him fill in the blanks.  That’s what my grandmother did with her own mother’s story, which Grandma titled, “She Came Alone.”

Helena left Sweden as a young single woman of 25 during the early 1860s to come to America because of her newly found religion.  Arriving in New York, she took the train to Nebraska, joined a handcart company sponsored by her church and walked to Utah where she later married and reared a family.  While pregnant with her eighth child, Helena became widowed.  That child, Sarah, was my grandmother.

Sarah later wrote her mother’s history as well as her own.  Certainly, we became acquainted with the husbands as they were part of the story, but how much richer the men’s history would have been had they written it themselves, or at least added their input.   Sarah’s father-in-law did write a portion of his history covering bits and pieces of his boyhood in Sweden and Denmark and his church missionary service.  Sadly, we know nothing of where he met his wife, their immigration to America or their married life together.

My own mother, bless her heart, wrote her and my father’s history several years before she developed Alzheimer’s.  How grateful I am that I have her handwritten manuscript, but again I have little of my father’s early years.   “Where was I?” I now ask myself.  My sister sat him down one day with a tape recorder to capture his story.  No doubt uncomfortable with the machine running, my sister ended up with a, “I was born, I grew up and got married, had three daughters, and now I’m retired,” kind of interview.  The tape ran 10 minutes, if that.   Better to hide the device and begin a casual conversation if you want the past to come forward.  Some people become very shy when confronted with a recorder.

Whatever inspired Alex Haley to write “Roots,” I can only wonder.  His search must have become almost addictive for him to overcome all of the obstacles in his way, and then to finally find what he felt was a recognized beginning for his family; how extraordinarily rewarded he must have felt.  Possibly no other book has so stirred the excitement of family history research as “Roots,” and subsequently the TV mini series which was watched by millions.

So what does this have to do with living with Alzheimer’s?  The number of victims is growing at an alarming rate and no one knows when memories will be — just gone.  So video, tape, dictate or write about your life, or other members of your family, and include in it corresponding world and local events.  Who knows, perhaps years from now one of your progeny might do some rewriting and make your story a historical best seller.

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