Grandfathers: Curly

Lois’ father was known by his nickname, Cumpy, and her mother was known to me as Mawie, but not to be outdone, Jerry’s parents, Emanuel and Kathryn, had their own notable nicknames: Curly and Babe. The following photo shows Lois standing on Curly’s right, he crowned with the hair that provided the source of his nickname, and to Curly’s left is Babe, a nickname for which I was never given an explanation. As you can see, height is not a Byrem family trait. Babe was “five-foot-two, eyes of blue,” and standing next to Curly in her two-inch heels, one can see that he might have topped out at five-feet-five; nonetheless, the pair of them were larger than life in the one community that mattered most to them: the First Church of the Brethren on Hummel Street in Harrisburg.

Lois, me, Curly and Babe 1948

Unlike Cumpy, Curly had managed to retain both of his legs, but unlike his counterpart, Curly was the antithesis of a sportsmen. He wore a brace on one leg, the consequence of a childhood contest with polio, and a bout of rheumatic fever when he was a boy had left his heart severely weakened, a heart which finally gave out one evening in Babe’s arms. Curly was 49 years old when he passed.

The only memory I have of Curly is something that happened one afternoon in the duplex pictured below on North 29th Street in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Babe’s sister Martha and Martha’s husband, Clarence, lived in the left side of the duplex; Babe and Curley lived in the other side thanks to what Babe and Martha had inherited from their relatively wealthy father.

Because of the one winter Lois had spent with Jerry and me in State College in an eight-by-twenty-four-foot trailer that had no running water between the first and last frosts of winter but that did have a long walk to the showers and lavatory through deep snow, the decision had been made for Lois and me to live with Curly and Babe during subsequent winters; Jerry remained in the trailer in State College to focus on his studies.

Our home in the trailer park off North Atherton Street in State College, Pennsylvania

Curly and I had a late afternoon routine. When he arrived home from his job as a denturist, he would immediately go to the foot of the stairs to the second floor and call my name, which would rouse me from my daily nap. Hearing my name, I would leave my new “big boy bed” and run to the top of the stairs where I would be stopped by a baby gate. Laughing, I would grab the gate and shake it as Curly climbed the stairs to pick me up and take me down to see Lois and Babe. I have no recollection of the daily routine, all of which Lois had shared with me multiple times during my boyhood; my solitary memory is of what happened after I ran to the baby gate, which my mother had forgotten to close. What I remember is the look of terror in Curly’s eyes just before I hurtled down the stairs.

That’s it, the only memory I have of both grandfathers. Cumpy died before I was born, and Curly passed not long after my tumble. There is significance in what I still remember of the look in Curly’s eyes. It was the look of a man who feared immediate harm being visited (no lasting damage was done) upon someone that he loved. Like many (but certainly not all) Boomer boys who were the sons of warriors who returned from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific determined to make men of their young boys, men who would face without flinching the horrors they had faced but seldom spoke of, I craved rare instances of demonstrable love from significant men in my life whenever and wherever I could find it.

Curly was a man who had no qualms about expressing his love. By all accounts, he was beloved by the members of the congregation of the church on Hummel Street, where he was a deacon and elder and served on the Church Board. I recall an afternoon meeting held in our home in 1964 for twenty or so, forty-something women who belonged to an adult Sunday School group named the Pathfinders, all of whom had grown up in Curly’s church in the 1930s and 1940s. As a kind of ice breaker, my mother handed out a slip of paper and pencil to each woman, asked that they write down without discussion the name of the man they knew or had known who was “the most Christ-like,” and then she had them drop the folded slips of paper into a bowl.

The activity, which was intended to prompt a conversation about the Christ-like qualities of the men who had been identified, illuminates an important fact of our lives when we Boomers were growing up. It would never have occurred to my mother, or to any of the women then in our family room, to request that each woman write down the name of a man or woman, who was “the most Christ-like” person they had ever known. When the slips of paper were opened, the subsequent conversation was revelatory: each had either Curly Byrem or Emanuel Byrem written on it.

As I prepared this post and was looking through old memorabilia, I found this poem in the pages of Curly’s well-worn Bible. The poem reflects the depth of Curly’s faith that the women had recounted during that afternoon in 1964, and I think it reveals something about his heart. I also think it may suggest that he understood the very real fragility of his physical health and may have felt the need to leave something for posterity. I don’t recall how old I had been when I learned from Lois that Babe had given birth to a stillborn son, something that never had been referred to by Babe. I had not thought to ask Lois if the baby had been given a name, and It was not until I found and read the following that I realized my middle name was given me in honor of my stillborn uncle.

The poem is printed for clarity
at the end of the post.

It is something of a miracle to me that Curly had become a man who the Sunday School women had described as compassionate, unselfish, patient and generous given that he was the son of Sam Byrem, the Harrisburg cigar store owner (on North 3rd Street) who was married to Cecelia, the woman who wore a vizor as she sat behind a felt-topped poker table at the back of the cigar store where she made book every day of the week. The following photo was taken sometime prior to Curly’s birth in 1900, and it shows Sam with his mother in a casual pose that was very atypical for photos of that time period. By all family accounts, Sam’s personality was irrepressible, and I think the photo reflects it.

Sam Byrem with his mother Mary Rinehart Byrem (late 1890s)

Sam’s temper was legendary. Curly was one of eight children, and one evening, when the entire family was seated for supper with Sam and Cecelia at opposite ends of the table, the couple began a roaring argument that ended when Sam bolted to his feet, lifted his end of the table, and deposited the entire dinner, platters and cutlery included, onto Cecelia’s lap.

I saw Curly’s sister Phoebe from time to time in the 1950s and 1960s because she lived a few blocks from Babe in Camp Hill, but the only Byrem uncle I recall meeting was Eugene. When I learned at some point as a fairly young boy that I had another great aunt (Rose) and five great uncles, I asked who and where they were. Aunt Phoebe explained that at the end of Sam’s funeral, the siblings had gathered in Uncle Eugene’s kitchen where Uncle Sieber, the oldest brother, had declared (something to the effect of), “Look, none of us like any of the others of us very much, never have and likely never will, so let’s just decide right now to agree to say goodbye and let’s never worry about ever getting together again.” And to my knowledge they never did.

What saddens me when I think about my grandfathers is how differently my growing up Boomer might have been had they lived a few decades longer. Each had been challenged by great physical misfortune in their childhoods and by economic misfortune during the Great Depression (see: Grandfathers: Cumpy and Grandmothers: Babe, which is soon to be posted), but the love and kindness demonstrated to and remembered by their friends and family members belies the qualities of resolute courage and resilience each had, which allowed them to overcome circumstances that might have daunted lesser men.

I wonder, if I had truly known them, might their guidance and certain love have influenced and inspired me to pursue a less dissolute youth? When I was growing up Boomer, my default reliance upon the occasional and random recounting of others’ memories of them seems not to have had a positive effect regarding that unfortunate outcome, but now that I have aged into an old Boomer, I realize those second hand memories of my grandfathers do inspire me to try and be a better man, a man of which my two grandpas—forever Cumpy and Curly—might have been proud.

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