TO SOOTH THE SAVAGE BEAST

The only way I can find missing “stuff” that Ken hides is to concentrate on one room at a time.  I don’t just search, I clean and sort as I go.  Beginning in one corner, I cover every square inch; moving knickknacks, dusting books, thumbing the pages in search of hidden mail or other pieces of flat stash he might have tucked away.  In our bedroom I always begin in one corner, which seems to be a key area for him to put things in a “safe” place.   Because it is his favorite hiding spot, it is also the cleanest corner in the house.  When I find the thing for which I am searching I usually stop looking — and cleaning.

Presently, I have a long list of missing items, so I will probably cover the entire room including the closet and all of the drawers, and then move on to another room.  Armed with vacuum, old towels, Simple Green, a trash can and a box for donations I begin the task.  Flipping on the TV for company I turn to PBS and find they are doing a funding drive (aren’t they always).  The program is music from mid-century.  Good, I thought — before, after and during the 50s era — that was our kind of music.

As the old familiar tunes played and the cleaning began I found myself drifting back to happier times remembering when people actually went on dates.  Ken was so courteous, never taking it for granted that I would reserve the weekend for him.  Never waiting until the last-minute he would call mid-week to secure an evening.   Of course, we went to movies, enjoyed a snack at a local drive-in afterward, but the popular date was going somewhere to dance.

Dancing under the stars at Larkspur, an open air pavilion in Marin County, was always special.  It could be a little cool, but we were warmed by the romance of it all, or if I felt a chill he would offer his sports coat which I accepted.  Scattered lights twinkled among the surrounding trees and if the fog stayed away the moon shined through adding its own charm.   There was also The Edgewater,  a new dance hall near Playland at San Francisco’s ocean beach just below the Cliff House, but because it was new it was super crowded, so we avoided that one in spite of  missing the band that might be playing.

A really big date was being invited to go dinner dancing at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, which we did on occasion.  We danced, ordered dinner, then danced between courses.   The food wasn’t wonderful, but that was all right; music, dancing and a romantic evening out were what was important.  It was all part of what we called courting.

All of the hotels engaged the various Big Bands, but as their popularity began to fade, along with ballroom dancing, the hotels maintained an “in-house” band.  Russ Morgan was the Claremont’s choice for many years.   Ken and I danced mostly to his music and hummed his theme song  “So Tired” which became “our song.”  It was at the Claremont that I first asked myself, “Am I falling in love with this guy?”   I suppose I was — and did.

I had hardly moved on to the next section of the bedroom when Ken found me.   “What are you doing?” he asked.  I’m never sure who he is or what he might say.  Would he feel threatened to find me in “his” room and ask me to leave — to stop touching his stuff?”  I held my breath trying to read his mood.  Accepting my answer as reasonable, he continued.  “Would it be all right if I stayed in here with you,” he asked.  “Of course,” I reassured him.   Looking around for a place to sit, he eyed the bed.  “Is it okay if I sit on the bed?”  My husband was mellow and non-aggressive so I invited him to just make himself comfortable.  Propping up his pillow he settled in.   After a time PBS stopped the program for their long pledge “commercial” before returning to our music of yesteryear.  I continued cleaning and Ken began a conversation.   “Nice music,” he commented.  “Do you remember the songs,” I asked.  “A little,” his answer being more question than fact.   I began to reminisce about our past, cleaning and talking longer than I thought possible, being grateful for this time we were spending together — being almost normal.   Ken listened, adding nothing as he lay there relaxed and enjoying the moments.  I wondered if somewhere in his troubled, clouded mind the sounds from long ago might help him find some peace, at least for a little while.  Wasn’t it Milton who said, “Music hath charms to sooth the savage beast?”  Perhaps he was right.

Originally posted 2009-07-27 01:15:04.

LIKE SON, LIKE FATHER

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.

Originally posted 2009-07-22 05:31:04.

THE HOUSE HOPPER

In many of the old black and white movies the characters did a lot of “night clubbing.”   Apparently, it was the in-thing to do in posh places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other sophisticated cities throughout the country.  No one would think of going to a club in blue jeans, much less a tee-shirt.  As a matter of fact, those wearing informal attire would not be admitted.  Patrons were dressed to the hilt; men in tuxedos and women in formal gowns and furs.

Whether it was a gangster movie or one about high society there was at least one night club scene where everyone  knew most everyone else in the establishment.  The male characters (women did not participate in this practice) would leave their own table and meander around the club, stopping at various tables to exchange greetings, business ideas or to schedule a coded mob meeting with the other clientage.  The practice was referred to as table hopping.

With new writers, directors and plots, movies and television moved into a new era with more of a casual flair.  Night clubs and related table hopping went the way of the mobs, taxi dancers, cigarette girls and public dance halls, all fading into oblivion.  But that table-hopping personality trait remained alive and well for more years than I can remember in Ken, my social butterfly husband.

As new home owners moving into one of the cookie-cutter tract houses of the 50s, we found our neighbors to be much the same as we: cookie-cutter people. Most were buying their first home under the G.I. Bill of Rights, they owned one car, had 3.5 children, a dog or cat — perhaps both — struggled to make the mortgage payments, and lived on one income with a very tight budget.   I doubt that any of us were ever a part of, or even considered the social level of night clubbing as seen in those black and white movies.

Once the tract was finished, a whole bunch of people, who were virtual strangers, moved into their homes within the first week.  We greeted one another with a quick “hello” and a casual wave, but strangers quickly became acquaintances as co-op fences sprang up, with costs shared by those owning adjoining properties, and we soon found we had a new group of best friends.

The developer planted one tree on every lot and tossed grass seed on top of the parched earth producing a front lawn.  It was a start and every Saturday, the men pulled out their lawn mowers, cut the grass, pampered the tree and watered the lawn.   Little by little each home began to take on it’s own individuality in spite of the cookie-cutter floor plan, and we found that although we had much in common we were not gingerbread folks straight from the cookie sheet.

We spent evenings on one another’s porches sharing our young lives talking about jobs, careers, our hopes and dreams as our children played on the new grass.  We liked each other and Ken was in his glory with an endless supply of friends to share stories.  Saturdays, with the garage doors up and open, he wandered from house to house to see what new and exciting changes everyone was making, holding boards while John sawed, kibitzing as Fred pondered where to place the gallon cans of young plants, and building a trellis for Herb who couldn’t pound a nail.  Looking outside to see how the mowing was coming along, I would find Ken nowhere in sight.  The mower, however, sat in the middle of the lawn where he had parked it before wandering off to visit.

Coaxing him home to do his own work, I mentioned to him that he couldn’t be accused of table hopping, but he sure was good at house hopping.  Furthermore, I continued, “If we lived in Heaven together, you would no doubt spend eternity cloud hopping.”  I was never certain  if he was deliberately procrastinating  or if his constant visiting was just part of his people-loving personality.  Whatever the reason he soon earned the reputation of the neighborhood house hopper.

Alzheimer’s disease has robbed Ken of most of his abilities and most of his personality.  All of his engineering and building skills have been forgotten and he would be baffled if asked to hold a board while someone else worked the saw.  However,  he can still do putter work — even cutting the grass.  While so much of his physical and mental accomplishments are gone or diminished,  he still enjoys people.

Recently we visited our dear friend, Dorothy, who is confined to bed in a convalescent hospital.  We don’t get there as often as I would like, but when we arrived she was pleased to see us.  Ken doesn’t remember Dorothy at all and when we entered the room with two other patients, he looked around at each person and their visitors.    While I gave Dorothy a hug, he stopped by one of the beds, reached across the patient to shake hands with her visitor and said,  “It’s good to see you again.”  They chatted for a minute and then Ken crossed the room, pulled up a chair and began visiting with Dorothy’s next-bed neighbor.  I whispered to her, asking if she minded chatting with my husband.  “Not at all,” she said, obviously a temporary patient with no visitors, who understood and recognized AD.    Ken made himself comfortable, tossed one leg over the other knee and began, “When I was in the Navy, during World War II……….”     Still a people person, this was table hopping at its best.

Originally posted 2009-07-17 04:57:46.

LITTLE DOG

She was a yappy little thing and had been leaving her calling cards on the lawn at our rental property.  I shooed her away and she ran off with her tail between her legs.  I felt bad because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I didn’t want to clean up after her either.  “Do you know where the little dog lives?” asked one of the neighbors.  I told him I hadn’t seen her before and we both watched as she ran down the street seeming to know where she was going.

Before long we came to realize that she was either badly neglected, lost, abandoned when someone moved or dumped.  Over the next several weeks, I watched as she dodged cars, lapped her water from sprinkler puddles and licked what was left on carelessly tossed food papers.  “If I can catch her, I’ll keep her,” I told the neighbors who had also become sympathetic to the small stray, but no one could catch her.  She knew all the hiding places and all the escape routes in and out of the various yards.  She especially liked the back section of our rentals as most of our tenants were at work and she could spend the day sleeping under a bush with no disturbances — except for me and my helpers — and once we came into view she was gone.

Like Ken, I missed having a pet in the worst way and when old age and a stroke took the last of our beloved dogs, I decided that caring for Ken and our business was all I could manage, but I felt sorry for Little Dog.  So against my better judgement I borrowed an animal carrier from Sabina, my daughter-in-law, and set it near Little Dog’s favorite bush hoping if I put food and water inside she would become accustomed to a “cage” and make trapping her a possibility.  Sabina suggested that I cover the cage with a blanket to make it look like a “den.”  Water in a bowl was the first lure, but I carried a hand full of kibble.  Sure enough, the next day she was there, but viewed me with great suspicion.  I tossed the kibble from a distance, which she accepted.  However, as soon a I stepped forward she was gone.  I examined the cage with its “den” camouflage and decided Little Dog was no dummy.  She had pulled the blanket down and made herself a tidy bed, so I put it in the cage with more kibble and fresh water.   Apparently, she appreciated her new home.  Each day her bed was slept in and the kibble was gone.  After a week or so, if she was there, Little Dog  no longer raced off, often accepting my hand-held treats which she sniffed at until I gently tossed them in her direction.  Closer and closer she came until I could almost touch her, but if I reached out, off she ran.

She was almost like a feral cat and I wondered if there were feral dogs, but that made no sense; dogs liked companionship and people.  So what was her problem?   Perhaps I needed to rethink my intentions.  What if Little Dog was a tramp dog?  Supposing she was happy and wasn’t interested in being retrained?  Maybe she liked her carefree life, especially if she had a benefactor?   What if I trapped her, took her home, worked with her (when?) and Ken forgot, leaving the door open and she ran away?   What then?  Would I hunt her down and try it all again?

Meanwhile our daughter, Julie, called, “Mom, Can you watch our three dogs?  Tim and I would like to get away for a few days.”  It had been a while since her menagerie had come to stay, but I told her it would be all right.  One of their dogs was an escape artist so I knew I would have to be careful with Ken, making sure he never left the front door open; difficult, but manageable.  This would be a test.  If I could manage three dogs and Ken, I could manage Little Dog.

While in the past, Ken whistled at the back door for our dog to come, he wasn’t particularly interested in his three visitors.  Occasionally, he would reach down and pat one of them, but he wondered where they came from and why they were here.   His Alzheimer’s had removed the joyful camaraderie he had once shared with all dogs.  My thoughts these past years that, perhaps, a dog in our house would be good for him were no longer true.  The three canines were just objects to him, and I felt concern when they got excited.  It would be easy for Ken to trip and fall over one of them — if not all of them.   My decision those few years ago had been correct.  We were better off without a dog.  And Little Dog?  I went back to our rentals with kibble and a treat.   Her blanket had not been “nested,” and the kibble was scattered — probably cats.  She was gone.  No one had seen her.   I could have allowed my thoughts to drift to the worst case scenario, but I refused to go there.  Instead, I decided she had been lost, but now she is found.  In my heart, Little Dog was home.

Originally posted 2009-07-11 01:05:40.

SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE

When my two sisters and I were young marrieds and busy with children or careers we made every effort to stay close, visiting with one another as often as we could.  To make our relationship even more pleasant our husbands were good friends and enjoyed discussing their various fields of endeavor with one another:  Douglas, a jeweler; George, a chemist and Ken an engineer.  Douglas and Ken were WWII veterans having served in the Air Force while Ken was a Navy man.  George, however, had been 4F because of poor eyesight and hearing problems.  Nevertheless, the three delighted in conversation and would sit, bantering with one another about every subject imaginable; war experiences, college life, youth and their troubles, and solving national problems if not the world’s — not to forget sports.

We women described their endless discussions as “Can You Top This,” not to say they out-and-out lied to one another — maybe some fabrication — or better yet, they stretched the truth; each attempting to make his story, no matter what the subject, better than the others.  I had also noticed that our three weren’t much different from most other husbands we knew whose wives complained about their story telling, but right now I’m talking about just three men:  our men.  This is not an attempt to dissect the male psyche, but the habit of “Can You Top This” was something our men indulged in no matter who they were talking with, even us, their wives.  Perhaps, though, not to the degree of repartee savored for one another.

When Ken and I met the thing I liked best about him was his easy, relaxed personality; his broad comfort zone with people from all walks of life.  He could talk with anyone, something that was difficult for me, being rather shy.  I loved his stories, filled with fun and adventure.  He was the life of the party and he was my date.  Ken had the gift of fab and I was happy to be with him.

After we married I noticed his stories grew with the telling.  Happenings about his friends (when Ken wasn’t even there) began to include him as part of the escapade.  I was sure the base story was true, but I started to suspect he enjoyed elaboration and color to make his story just a little bit better, even fudging into some subject matters which were not of his expertise.  Nevertheless, he remained Mr. Charming and definitely Mr. Entertainment.  Our company took pleasure in his chatter and our young children clamored for him to tell his stories again and again, which he did beginning each episode with, “When I was in…….”

As the years passed I probably knew those accounts better than he:  high school sports (which were cut short by his becoming a Merchant Marine seaman at 15), followed by  his stint in the Navy, and then coming home from the war and finishing school.

Always athletic, he skied, had a brief spell with a fledgling (but doomed) semi-pro football team, played a little college and office-league basketball, and swung a baseball bat with the Dad’s Club of our elementary school, and our church athletic group.  If he couldn’t do it well, Ken didn’t do it at all.  For example, his experience with anything movable attached to his feet was a complete disaster.   As a family we tried roller and ice skating at the rinks, but Ken’s weak and wobbly ankles brought those undertakings to a quick end.  Good sport though he was, skating of any kind was not for him.

During all the years of our marriage, he was a sports enthusiast, seldom missing a game on TV, more often than not to my annoyance.  Now, with his Alzheimer’s disease I find myself scanning the screen for any competition which might hold his attention.   Several nights ago, I found a hockey game in full battle.  Personally, I had never paid much attention to Hockey, but as the skaters raced around the rink, I found myself watching.  “Look Ken,” I excitedly said, “They look like a bunch of chickens chasing a bug.”  I wondered in his dementia if he would pick up on what the skaters were doing, but he actually watched and laughed at the wild, fast movements as the players chased the small, black speck on the ice.  We talked a little bit about the game and he actually laughed at my chicken joke.  Then somewhere in his clouded mind the old fabricator struggled free and said, “When I was in high school, I played a little hockey…….not much, our team was really small, but we did all right…..”

I rolled my eyes, and smiled, it was nice to know that somewhere in that tangled mind, Ken, the great spinner of tall tales was still there playing his favorite game, “Can You Top This.”  Some things — hopefully — never change.

Originally posted 2009-07-09 05:56:49.

THE GREAT ADVENTURE

My father in law, Nicholas Romick, immigrated to America when he was a fresh-faced boy of 15 arriving at Ellis Island in 1906. Coming into the harbor Nick stood at ship’s rail with other newcomers as the Statue of Liberty came into view, his young body filled with 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 blessings from his widower father and a loan of $50. to pay for the voyage which he promised to return. From the time he waved his last goodbye to family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and stepped onto the gangplank of an American-bound ship Nick was on his own.

Through the long process of immigration with thousands of other Europeans who poured through the Island’s gates, Nick was pushed along with the crowd exiting from just one of the many ferry boats onto the docks of New York City.  His last name had already been Americanized from Romic’ to Romich, the first of two changes. Furthermore, his only knowledge of English was, “Mr. Man, Give me job.” Fortunately, a kind farmer from upstate New York answered his plea and offered the boy work. For the next few years the industrious youth 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 sand-hog 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 world; the people, the customs and his first language. During his wanderings Nick had heard of a large Slovenian community in Pueblo and at 22 he thought it time to settle down.

New man on the job at the mill, 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 pretty little Rosie, still a child at 10.

Yet, adventure called once again, and Nick left his new-found friends joining the U. S. Marines, where Romich became Romick. Knowingly, the choice took him away from Colorado, but through his enlistment Nick earned his citizenship, something he knew he must have.  The Marines also opened up a whole new world of discipline to him, not only in obedience and following the rules of the Corps to the exact letter, but he was introduced to a new level of personal hygiene, something unfamiliar to him as a boy and traveling the country as a rugged and ragged hobo.

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, 16, was no longer pretty little Rosie, but beautiful Rose.  She and Nick developed “an understanding” while he was on leave.  Returning to China for an additional two years the couple corresponded until his discharge.  Nick returned to Pueblo where Rose, at 18, was waiting.

They married in spite of the 12-year-age difference with the family’s blessings — everyone believing that Nick would pick up where he had left off — working at the steel mill. “You’re not going back to the mill,” Rose told her new husband, “We’re going to California.” 

Two years later in a small East Bay apartment the couple welcomed their first child, a girl, whom they named Loretta.  Nick worked at several odd jobs eventually finding permanent employment with Block Tannery in Berkeley.   With steady income the couple purchased a small frame house on 10th street also in Berkeley so Nick could walk to his job.  Kenneth was born two years later.  Nick remained with Block 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 them in some way.   “Your father is a remarkable man, having lived a truly adventurous life,” Bob reminded the two.  “His experiences could fill a book.”  Young and foolish, they dismissed the advice complaining they had listened to their father’s tales 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 and of his ocean voyage.  However, when I asked detailed questions about his homeland, 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 the perfect size for the Sunday magazine. For the readers it was a good read, but for family it was only a portion.  The rest of the story, like my mother’s recipe for dinner rolls was gone — held captive within the Alzheimer’s prison of Nick’s 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 too will continue day after day just as it is now; that there will always be time to sit and listen to the legends 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 now can never be asked remaining forever without answers.

Originally posted 2009-06-28 20:38:38.

CHOICES

When I was a little girl we lived in a fourth-floor flat located in the Noe Valley District of San Francisco.  On the corner, just down the street from our building, was “Dan’s,” a sparkling new soda fountain which served the best hamburgers and milk shakes in town, and ice cream — the likes of which we kids had never seen.  Long before Baskin had ever heard of Robbins “Dan’s” served at least eight flavors.  I had discovered maple nut, so for me there was no question as to what flavor I chose; three scoops of maple nut for a nickel.  Some of my little friends, though, had not settled on a favorite flavor and would wander back and forth in front of the counter changing their minds with every step.  Finally, the nice man in charge (it might even have been Dan himself) would say, “What would you like, vanilla or vanilla?”  “Vanilla,” was the immediate reply — problem solved.  Sometimes there are just too many choices.

Today, we’re confronted with even more choices.  Not only B & R with their 36 flavors of ice cream, but how many channels do we need on TV — and menus?  When Ken and I go out to eat, if only for a quick bite, he studies the menu board, or the menu, then hands it to me saying, “You can order.”  I know all of those choices are confusing to him, as they were to his mom and dad and my own mother, all three victims of Alzheimer’s.  So, as we did for them and as I now do for Ken, I order.  It’s like vanilla or vanilla.

At home, choosing has become almost problematic as  Ken’s AD continues its advance.  Perhaps it’s not so much the choosing, but forgetting that a choice has been made.  I had arranged his razor and shaving cream in a plastic glass, the comb and brush in another, and his toothbrush and toothpaste in a third.  With all three side by side on a shelf, it was easy for him to do his morning routine before taking a shower.  This method has been successful for the past several years, but not any more.  A shave and shower for a younger, healthier Ken was 10 minutes.  Now it stretches from 30 minutes up to an hour.

After a period of time I peek into the bathroom to see how he’s doing.  “Good,” I  say to me, “He’s shaving.”  Then he’s brushing his teeth; five minutes later he’s shaving again.  I worried one morning that he would injure his face after a third shave.  Had I intruded, suggesting he move on to the shower, he would have been furious.  Furthermore, during the day when he brushed his teeth, he felt he should shave again and wanted to shave before going to bed as well.  Shaving and brushing his teeth had become “one.”  For sure, I needed to rethink his entire routine.

Solution:  reduce the choices.  The comb and brush stayed, but as soon as he finished shaving, the razor and shaving cream vanished.  It was replaced with the toothbrush and toothpaste which remained all day until he went to bed, then the shaving gear went back on the shelf and the toothbrush and toothpaste vanished.  At times I see him searching for the missing “set,” but a change of subject brings him out of the bathroom or into the shower.  The new arrangement is working.

However, there are times when Ken makes decisions because he still has an understanding of what he wants and what he likes.  Planning on doing some yard work I laid out an older pair of jeans — mended and faded.  Dutifully, he put them on and was ready for breakfast, but before sitting down he returned to the bedroom.  Coming back to eat 10 minutes later he was wearing his good jeans.  The shabby pair ended up in the back of the closet.  Surprised, I had to laugh, and I felt good for him because he made a choice by himself.   In addition, when I ask what kind of ice cream he wants for dessert, chocolate or vanilla, he says without hesitation, “Chocolate.”

Originally posted 2009-06-28 07:15:33.

TREASURES FROM THE PAST

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 writings I brought to mind a tidbit about my mother in The Dinner Roll 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, which would have allowed  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, “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.

Originally posted 2009-06-19 05:22:22.

THE DINNER ROLL RECIPE

“It’s time for us to move back to the Bay Area,” said my father.  “We need to live closer to you — not with you — but near you.”  At 85 he finally admitted to himself that my mother was slipping away and she would need more care than he could provide.  Not yet diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease, she was showing all of the signs.  I had noticed her failing as well, but the decision to leave their lovely home located between Sebastopol, California and Bodega Bay which boarders the gentle Pacific had to be theirs.

The little farm as the family lovingly titled my parent’s retirement home had been a gathering place for more than 20 years and tradition at Thanksgiving.   All of that time she and my father bought the bird from a local turkey farm while the rest of us brought the side dishes.  The one thing, however, that no one even ventured to duplicate were the dinner rolls straight from Mama’s oven.

Whether the recipe was her own, her mother’s or one clipped from a magazine we never knew.  What we did know was the roll recipe was tucked away in her black, loose-leaf binder among the other clippings and hand-written cooking treasurers collected through all the years of her married life.  My sisters and I never asked for the recipe because the rolls were Mama’s speciality.  Being a wonderful cook she prepared other specialities as well when there was an occasion or if she felt inspired, but when she was busy, food was plain and simple, “and better for you in the long run,” she assured us.  So it was that we grew up experiencing a few culinary delights as well as steamed potatoes still in their jackets and vegetables cooked in “waterless” cookware.

With their final decision to move absolutely firm, Ken and I looked, and found, an ideal house for them just a few blocks from us.  Four months later I drove the two-hour trip to begin packing with the family coming the following week for the big move.  Mama saved everything.  My job with the help of my niece Denise was not only packing, but also included sorting through some 60-plus years of accumulation.  Dad’s job was to keep those empty boxes coming, and Mama’s job was to see that we were all fed and happy.  After all, she was a wonderful cook.

As we sat down for dinner Denise and I looked at one another with the same thought, “What is thisssss?”  Tasting did not answer the question.  Too much spice, too much salt and too much of whatever else it was that she found in her food supply which made up the mystery dish.  My father, who usually wolfed down his meals in a matter of minutes, ate everything on his plate, but it was an obvious effort, and because he was hungry.   Denise and I dabbled with our food then went back to packing.  Mama, we agreed, had forgotten how to cook.  Following that first night one of us worked with her preparing dinner and I told my dad that he would have to help Mama in the kitchen once they moved into their new home.  Either that or he would have to get used to guess-what dinners.  I had known that Alzheimer’s was stealing away my mother’s thoughts and memories, but I hadn’t realized it was stripping away her skills as well.

When I packed the kitchen supplies, I placed all of her cookbooks in one box, sealed it up realizing that it would be unlikely she would ever use them again.  At the new home I placed the box on a shelf in the garage, planning to glean the best of her recipes and to browse through the black binder at a later date.

The later date didn’t come until after she was gone.  Picking up the dilapidated binder I thought about the aroma of her freshly baked rolls which had beckoned us to the dinner table on so many memorable occasions.  Page by page I searched, but to no avail.  There was no recipe for the rolls I remembered.  Instead of being tucked away in a book it was no doubt tucked away somewhere in the corner of her mind.

Even after  nearly two decades I find that every so often a thought races through my head, “I’ll call Mama and ask her about …..?”  But just as quickly reality follows; Mama isn’t here and a thousand little questions will never have answers.  Nor will I ever make rolls as delicious as the ones she made.

Originally posted 2009-06-04 06:23:00.

THE DISHWASHER

I recall my grandson, John, being the helpful boy he was, had surprised his mother by putting away all of the dishes in the dishwasher.  At six, he was so pleased with himself,  and she thanked him with a generous hug and kiss telling him how thoughtful he was and how much she appreciated him.  There was just a slight problem.  The dishes hadn’t been washed.  So when he had gone his merry way to play she washed every dish in the cabinet — dirty ones and clean ones alike.

When Ken is my husband he often wants to help in the kitchen.  A one-time Navy cook he had bragged for decades about his skills, but  during all of those boastful years Ken seldom used any of those skills in our kitchen.  However, when he retired I strongly suggested to him that cleaning the kitchen would be one of his homemaking  jobs saying, “If you’re retired, then so am I.”   I was pleasantly surprised to find he was totally accepting of his new job assignment and would often ask, “What can I do to help?”  And he began rekindling his old skills.

It seems, though, that time and circumstances do have  their way with us, making change a constant in our lives.   As his memory began to fade he could accomplish less and less in some areas, but was still a very good prep cook happily peeling vegetables, taking out the garbage and sweeping up the floor.  When even those skills diminished I found I would rather he didn’t do anything, but just as a wise mother doesn’t discourage the help of her young children, I didn’t want to hurt Ken’s feelings by telling him that he was actually in the way.  So, for the most part, when he is cooperative and not argumentative he can help.

Perhaps it’s because of those years when the kitchen was his responsibility that he has become obsessed with the sink and counter space.  When I bring out greens and other vegetables to make a salad, he puts them back in the refrigerator as soon as I turn my back, he also puts serving bowls out of sight, washes  greased cookie sheets while I’m mixing the batter and polishes the sink each time I rinse my hands.

If I wash a few pots and pans, leaving them to drain in the sink he wants them put away — right now — dripping wet.  More often than not our home and cooking area has become HIS house and HIS kitchen, wanting everything in its own place or out of sight — according to him.   Sometimes if he discovers dishes in the dishwasher he will empty it.  With the progression of Alzheimer’s, though, he can’t tell the difference between clean and dirty dishes even though I periodically sprinkle them with catsup believing that might identify them as needing to be washed.  One morning, however, I caught him as he opened the dishwasher and began to remove the dishes, catsup and all.

“They’re dirty,” I said.

“No they’re not,” he replied, apparently not seeing the red blotches.

“Yes,” I insisted.  They are dirty.  That’s why they’re in there.  This is the dishwasher and when it’s full, it will wash the dishes.  That’s it’s job.”

“Not necessarily,” he said in his arrogant tone, which is not that of Ken.

“We’re not going to argue about this,” I stated.  “The dishes are dirty.  Do not put them away until they are washed,” I concluded emphatically, closing the door, and suggesting that there might be a ball game on television.

I busied myself elsewhere and later that afternoon I noticed he had managed to empty the dishwasher in spite of me.   He mentioned how hard he had worked cleaning up the kitchen and putting everything away.  I sighed and thanked him for his effort.  Later, when he wasn’t looking, I filled the dishwasher to capacity with dishes from the cabinets and emptied all of the forks, knives and spoons from the drawers into the basket washing it all, just as my daughter had done with six-year-old John.

“Let’s see now,” I asked myself thoughtfully, ” is there another way?   How did we do the dishes way back when……?”    Oh yes:  fill the sink with hot soapy water, toss your helper a towel and say, “I’ll wash, you dry.”  And he does.

Originally posted 2009-05-21 06:42:17.

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