New York City

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.

THE BEST THING

It was Saturday night and I had hoped to have Ken settled in so I could go to bed early.  I felt unusually tired and he had been beastly all day: very agitated, very angry, very arrogant and argumentative.  He is on medication to cut down on the agitation and it usually works, but not that night.  Suggested dosage is one half pill in the morning and another toward evening.    Nothing seemed to make him happy or subdued, so instead of waiting until evening I gave him the other half in the late afternoon and another half pill (with the doctor’s permission) around 8:00 p.m.  Instead of him becoming calm he became more hyper and more angry.  Even the Tylenol PM at 10:00 o’clock was ineffective as he wandered from room to room ranting and raving and ordering me to leave.

Exasperated beyond description I went into the office and opened the computer thinking I would work for an hour or so.  When he becomes very unreasonable it’s easier to just lock myself in and him out.   I pay no attention to his demands to open the door and eventually he settles down in front of the TV.  Usually, he will sit for a while, get drowsy and I can talk him into getting ready for bed.

After an hour I peeked around the corner and found him ransacking the refrigerator.  “What are you doing?”  I asked.  “I’m hungry,” he replied.   “But we had dinner,” I insisted.  “Maybe you had dinner,” he growled, “but I didn’t.  I’m hungry.”  Perhaps some food would subdue him, I thought, so I made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  He ate half and told me that’s all he wanted.  He went back to sitting in front of the TV.  It was midnight.  “Please go to bed,” I begged.  “No,” he answered.  “I’m going to watch TV all night.” 

Exhausted and sleep deprived I went back into the office.  I couldn’t believe how wired he was — and why?  I returned to the computer.  The letters I typed danced up and down on the monitor and when I tried to proofread I fell asleep at every other line.  How I ached to go to bed and the more sleep deprived I became the more my anger grew.  I raged into the night, cursing that I had ever met him — that we had married — and in my frustration I imagined a simple, uncomplicated life without this deranged man — any man.  Why hadn’t I remained single, opting for a career in New York instead of marriage.  At that moment I saw myself sleeping in the bedroom of a lovely apartment  high above the city.  The room was silent and I was alone — how glorious — then my reverie vanished.  I crossed my arms on the desktop, dropped my head and cried.

It isn’t as though I can’t leave him alone.  At times I do, but only for a while and usually he is sleeping or happily occupied reading junk mail when I run to the bank or do other small errands.  I would be fearful to fall asleep with him in his present frenzied condition.  Even if I pulled the 220 fuse controlling the stove, I would not feel comfortable.   In addition to ransacking the pantry and the refrigerator, he leaves water running and lights on everywhere; and he could hurt himself.   On one of his stubborn nights I found him in the living room on the floor.   Apparently he had fallen getting out of a low chair.   Had I been asleep he would have been there all night. 

Finally, the house seemed quiet as I ventured out to see what he was doing.   Still watching TV, he appeared to be more relaxed.   Softly I asked, “Let’s go to bed.”  He said, “Okay.”  It was 3:00 a.m.

I slept fitfully and awoke at 10:00, staggered into the kitchen/family room and switched on the television.  Through my burning eyes the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco appeared on the screen.   I first thought it to be a travelogue, but the scene changed showing two men in a row-boat: one young and the other older.  The younger man spoke briefly; something about not being sure of marriage.  I decided it must be an old movie.  Still recovering from the previous night, I plopped myself  into a chair.  If I watched I didn’t have to do anything else — at least not for a while.  The camera focused to the older man — a Catholic priest — who answered the younger man’s question with reference to marriage, “It’s the best thing I ever did.”  Continuing, he explained that he had been married to a wonderful woman for 26 years.  When she died he entered the priesthood.

I watched this rather silly movie to its end where thousands of young women scurried to the church in response to an ad for marriage to this very wealthy, but reluctant swain.   Following a series of wild chases up and down the hills of San Francisco, he eagerly married his true love with all of the would-be brides as witnesses.   The movie will be easily forgotten, but I’ll remember the most thought-provoking line the writer wrote:  “It’s the best thing I ever did.” 

I remembered the night before; my anger and cursing my own marriage of more than a half century.  It has been a good marriage — not a perfect marriage  — not a perfect man or a perfect woman.  I don’t believe there is that kind of perfection, at least not in this world.   However, I will give my marriage a good solid B — better than average.  Looking back on our youthful beginning I wonder if I thought of “in sickness and in health” as meaning anything more than a cold or the flu.  How naive that would have been, but more likely I don’t believe either of us thought about illness.  After all, isn’t youth invincible?   Healthy young people on the brink of a new life don’t look very far down the road.   And if they did glimpse the ending would it alter their decision to go forward? 

Our life together has brought us our share of adversity and has now thrust upon us this illness of unmeasurable grief and sorrow, but it has also showered us with years of happiness, joy and the blessings of an ever-expanding family.  Our five remarkable children, now showing signs of greying hair and middle-age spread, have bestowed upon us grandchildren and they in turn have given us great-grandchildren, and our posterity will go forth.  Thinking of my imagined single life I had to ask “me” if that’s what I really would have wanted.  Had I chosen not to marry what would that other life be like for me today?  Even without looking down the untaken road I would have to conclude that life without my family, without Ken, would be unbearably lonely and colorless. 

In the bright, warm light of Sunday morning I believe I received something to ponder; perhaps even a Heavenly message through a silly old movie and from an actor portraying a Catholic priest reminding me that, indeed, marriage is the best thing I ever did.

Originally posted 2009-05-15 06:56:12.

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