Family history


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.


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.


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.

Does Alzheimer’s Grow On Your Family Tree?


Dorothy Cernac sits with her cake during a celebration of her 100th birthday Sunday at the Mozart Restaurant & Lounge

COURTESY PHOTO/JOHN CERNAC Dorothy Cernac sits with her cake during a celebration of her 100th birthday Sunday at the Mozart Restaurant & Lounge. – Pueblo, CO

April 25 2014 – On Ken’s family tree, Aunt Dorothy is Ken’s aunt, his mother Rose’s younger sister. In fact, she is the baby of the family, the last of 14 children born to Pete and Mary Perse of Pueblo, Colorado. Dorothy still lives in the family home where she was born on April 6,1914. She does not have Alzheimer’s nor any cognitive loss. Her sister Rose had Alzheimer’s as did several of her brothers. Mother Mary lived into her late 80s with no signs of the dreaded disease. So it might be assumed the  disease must have had its beginning with Pete, which is still difficult to tell as he died of heart failure in his early 60s.


It just appears, at least to me, that some families are more subject to certain diseases that others: Diabetes seems to be prominent in some families, heart conditions in others, cancer in many and Alzheimer’s and various dementias in others.


Shortly before Ken was diagnosed with AD even though there were signs of the ailment long before we went to a neurologist. I had asked our PC doctor, knowing that both of Ken’s parents had the disease, what were Ken’s chances. His answer was, “With such a vast gene pool for a fetus to pull from, there was no way of forecasting. Maybe yes, maybe no.” I suppose with Auntie Dorothy she was part of the hit or miss and the family tree from where her genetic makeup collected must have been free of the AD gene.

Dorothy was a bright young woman and made a career with Montgomery Wards as manager of the fashion department, retiring after 33 years of devoted service. Being the youngest in the family,she remained home, caring for her aging mother until her death.. She married widower John Cernac in her middle years and became step mom to his grown children, loving them as well as her newly acquired grandchildren.


Dorothy has seen a hundred years of change in her lifetime recalling members of her family tree who were fighter pilots during WWII. She also commented on the natural growth of her city over the years. For her century of learning, the matriarch of the family passes along to her remaining family and friends some life advice including dealing with adversity and challenges such as Alzheimer’s — the family disease she didn’t inherit: “Be prepared to take the good with the bad.”

Originally posted 2014-04-26 17:00:27.


September 6, 2013 – Spirit houses are miniature dwellings, dangling from trees or placed on a small post somewhere on the property of many Southeast Asian homes. A resting place for former dwellers, coming back to visit as spirits.

My friend Matthew is a dear man.  Just over retirement age he is alone – not alone in the world but alone in his beautiful state of California as far as family is concerned.  His siblings live in other states and he has not been invited to come and live with any one of the three.  That reality brings tears to his soft, brown eyes and to mine.

We might say that Matthew was and is a bit off-center; at times unable to reach what we may perceive to be a logical conclusion to a problem, or to always do the right thing in a social setting. His rationale is not the usual. He does not have dementia, but if AD is a family disease he is a candidate for Alzheimer’s.  His I.Q. is low, but not low enough that he qualified for special ed., but not high enough to allow him entry into a permanent kind of job as an adult.  Socially, his preference has been with the Gay community being involved in limited or sporadic affairs during his younger years, but never entering into a committed or long-term relationship.  Matthew lived at home with his parents contributing to the family income and buying his own creature comforts by cleaning houses and doing yard work throughout the neighborhood. Continue reading

Originally posted 2013-09-06 22:25:28.

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