Grandmothers: Babe

I do not recall ever learning how Kathryn Hoffman Byrem came to be called Babe. It may be because she was the baby of the family (the circled child below) …

Back, left to right: Benjamin Franklin Hoffman, Norman, Emma Cook Hoffman; front, left to right: Martha and Kathryn

… but I suspect it may have had something to do with what is conveyed by the ~1916 photo of Babe immediately below. Do not miss the bow.

Babe at 14

The bow is telling given that her mother, Emma, was a member of the Church of the Brethren, once a church with a “plain” tradition (note Emma’s prayer covering in the photo above). Babe explained to me that her preference in attire—allowed by the somewhat “plain” Emma—had caused her to be shunned by their congregation for over a year because the then pastor had taken umbrage with her conformity to fashion. As soon as the pastor departed for greener pastures, the Hoffman’s returned to the fold.

Emma’s lineage was not Brethren; rather, she descended from a noteworthy Quaker ancestor named Peter Cook, who died at sea in 1713 aboard the ship that carried his wife, Elinore, and their ten children on to Philadelphia. Landing with a large brood and without a husband, Elinore married John Fincher in a matter of a few weeks. John took his large, new family to Chester County, Pennsylvania, where Elinore was buried in 1726 at the London Grove Friends Meeting House, which is only eight miles from my present home.

Peter Cook II, the third of Peter’s and Elinor’s ten children, married Sarah Gilpin and moved to York County where they ultimately became a part of the Warrington Meeting in the 1760’s. By 1858, the male membership of the meeting had dropped to a point where numbers were insufficient to hold monthly meetings. In that year, Peter II’s great-great-grandson, Hezekiah Cook, was 21-years-old, recently married to Eve Wiley, and the father of a newly-born daughter. Left with no meeting in which to worship, Hezekiah turned to the Brethren, a denomination with beliefs that mirrored those of The Friends, and in time, he became an itinerant minister who would preach in various Church of the Brethren meeting houses in York and Cumberland counties.

Warrington Friends near Wellsboro PA.JPG
Warrington Meeting House, York County, Pennsylvania

Hezekiah was Emma’s father, Babe’s grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather; Hezekiah is why Babe (and her husband, Emanuel), and ultimately I, came to be raised in the Brethren tradition and not that of the Religious Society of Friends.

Babe’s father, Benjamin Franklin Hoffman, is one of those remarkable American men who, born from the dust of poverty, manage—thanks to being white, being blessed with luck, a sound mind, and entrepreneurial zeal—to end up living a comfortable life. Born to Catharine Hoffman and a rugged man named Tempest in a dirt-floored shack in Latimore Township, Adams County, Pennsylvania, Benjamin was recognized as a bright child by a doctor in a nearby town. B.F. as he came to be known, received his first stroke of luck when Tempest agreed to allow B.F. to be adopted by the doctor who raised and educated him.

In 1890, B.F. was deemed respectable enough at the age of 19 to marry Emma, the daughter of the preacher, Hezekiah Cook, and by the turn of the century B.F. owned a prosperous livery business in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, which he sold in order to buy an ice and coal business in Harrisburg. The timing of the sale of the livery business corresponded to what B.F. saw coming: automobiles. He also sold his coal and ice business when he got wind of the imminent arrival of home refrigeration, and in a few years, he learned about another new innovation: radio. B.F. founded Harrisburg’s first radio station, WCOD, and began investing in real estate in his adopted home town of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

If I ever knew the story of how Babe came to know Emanuel Byrem, who everyone called Curly, I have forgotten it. Curly was the son of a mercurial, Harrisburg tobacco store owner named Sam Byrem and his book-making wife, Cecelia, both of whom were born in Perry County, Pennsylvania. By all accounts, Babe led a relatively privileged and comfortable life before she married Curly, who provided a steady but small income working as what is now called a dental technician (he worked in a lab that made false teeth), but Babe adapted well to a simpler life, probably knowing that B.F.’s deep pockets were there if needed. And from time to time, they were.

My father, Jerry, came along in 1922, and thanks to financial assistance from B.F., Babe and Curly maintained a comfortable little row house at 1420 Market Street in Camp Hill near the Lemoyne borough line. Life was good. B.F. was doing well enough to continue buying Cadillacs, and he became involved with the fledgling Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission—Jerry told me his grandfather had once let him hold a million-dollar bank check that was to be involved in a Turnpike-related transaction—and then came the Great Depression.

1420 Market Street today in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

Curly did not lose his job during the Depression, but his salary was cut in half, and he could not afford to ride the bus to work, so despite the leg brace he wore due to a childhood bout with polio, he walked the four miles to his place of work in Harrisburg and back each day. When Curly fell seriously ill for a period of weeks in 1934, Jerry, then 12, got a newspaper route, which he kept going and growing until he graduated from high school. Babe, a woman arguably born to some advantage, had by all accounts cheerfully taken on the roll of homemaker when she married Curly, and despite the Depression and the need for her to take in several neighbors’ laundry each week to help pay the bills, she never lost the cheerful disposition that is the one thing those who knew her always remembered.

Typical of Babe was a practice that began with the random appearance of a hobo* at her back door asking for something to eat. As the story goes, Babe gave him a bowl of soup, and in the days and weeks that followed, more and more hoboes would stop at her back door and ask for something to eat, requests with which she complied. She came to learn that during the depression hoboes made a habit of marking the houses—in this case by notching a fence post along the alley behind 1420 Market Street—where kindness and a bowl of soup or hunk of bread were likely to be offered. Babe is the person who first told me about the story, which Jerry confirmed, and as with everything in my memory of this remarkable woman, she did not share the story to glorify her sacrifice, but as a lesson to me of what she believed Jesus had taught about showing kindness to those less fortunate, and to reinforce my understanding of how fortunate I was. I had not doubted then, nor do I doubt it now that for Babe, helping those men was one of the most rewarding things she had done in her life.

In 1949, Curly, who had a “bad heart” due to a severe attack of rheumatic fever when he was a boy, died of a massive heart attack while in Babe’s arms. Babe was devastated, and because Jerry, her only child, was concerned that she might do herself harm, my mother, Lois, and I went to Camp Hill to live with Babe while my father remained in State College to complete his studies. From that time until her death 18 years later, Babe was my comfort, my pole star, my solitary source of unconditional love. As I write this, I am feeling the lasting pain of her loss as well a swelling gratitude. Were it not for her love, I have no doubt but that I would have succumbed in my high school days to the depression and dissolution in which I became submerged; instead, I survived and some might say, have thrived, and I owe almost all of whatever peace of mind I may have to those years when I was continually immersed in her love.

Two years after Curly passed, Babe met Sherman Garrett, a Prudential Insurance man who sold life insurance door to door. He became the only grandfather I have ever known since Lois’ father died in 1939, and because I only have one lasting memory of Curly who died before I turned two. Sherm was also the only male in my life willing to do the things loving fathers did with sons, and the two of us would spend hours together in the wood shop he had put together in the garage of their Camp Hill home at 2914 Harvard Avenue. He taught me how to use hand tools at an early age and taught me how to garden, all under the smiling countenance of his beloved Babe. He also had a wonderful, teenaged daughter named Janet who lived with him and Babe; Janet was an excellent high school athlete who worked with me to improve on my baseball and even football skills.

I was five-years-old when one evening, dinner being ready, Babe asked me to call Sherm to dinner. He was cleaning up his shop, and as I went to the basement door to comply, Babe touched my shoulder. When I turned toward her, she said with a twinkle in her eyes, “Why don’t you call him grandpa when you call him, instead of Sherm?” I remember asking if he would mind since I had been calling him Sherm since I had met him, to which she replied, “I think it would make him really happy if you did.” I still feel the rush of joy thinking about what happened after I had called out, “Supper’s ready, Grandpa!” Beaming, the man now officially christened “Grandpa” rushed up the stairs, picked me up, spun me around and hugged me.

Such were the simple joys that Babe sought to inspire. The relationship she and Grandpa cultivated was something out of a 50s TV sitcom. Every weekday around three o’clock, Babe would take a bubble bath, put on makeup and jewelry, and in a dress, nylons, and high heels, she would greet Grandpa at the front door with a kiss and a hug, and what was perhaps most important to me, a boy waiting to become a man, was seeing that every time they had their daily reunion, Grandpa would drop his briefcase, wrap Babe in his arms and kiss her like two stars in a movie scene. Somehow, even as a boy, I understood that what I was watching was not the fulfillment of the other’s expectation, but something each needed to feel: the love each had for the other. If not for them, I would have grown up not knowing that such relationships existed outside of TV and the movies.

In 1958 after only seven years of marriage, as had his predecessor, Sherm—then only fifty-eight-years-old—died in Babe’s arms from a heart attack. At eleven, losing my only grandpa was my first brush with true grief, and I was devastated. I recall a massive turnout for Sherm’s viewing. The nature of his business, which required him to collect regular insurance premiums directly from his customers, plus his years of service as an usher at Harrisburg’s First Presbyterian Church, were reasons for the turnout, but there was also another factor. Dozens of people showed up who did not know Sherm or my parents, but they knew Babe. The same thing happened at her own viewing nine years later: the appearance of random folks that Babe had met at the Farmer’s Market or at Pomeroy’s while shopping in Harrisburg, as well as people of whom Babe had heard about through the grapevine.

Each was a person who had suffered some misfortune, and each had a tale to share about loving and hopeful letters they had received from Babe, letters that often contained a dollar or two that came every few months without end, letters that were apparently received as they had been intended: as gestures of compassion that Babe had offered to these folks during their time of need. I had not been surprised when I listened to Lois and Jerry comparing notes on the way home from both viewings—especially after Babe’s viewing—because in the years after Sherm’s death, I had become even closer to Babe: she only lived two miles away from my home, so I could and did ride my bike to 2914 Harvard Avenue to visit with her, help her with chores, and to soak up her love. Much of our time in those years was spent talking about our day-to-day lives. She asked me questions about my life, comforted me when I was distraught, offered alternative ways to look at things that I had only been examining through the lens of a pre-teen, and yes, she spoiled me. Staying up to watch Johnny Carson with her on the nights I slept over and hearing her giggle at Carson’s shenanigans remains a fond memory.

Babe had been diagnosed with diabetes in her twenties: every day she administered a shot of insulin to herself and every day she pricked her finger. Her diabetes and a doctor who for twenty years misdiagnosed a gall bladder problem as chronic indigestion ultimately led to her untimely death at the age of 67. Physically, she appeared much older than her age, but even when bedridden, her spirit was indomitable. We learned from the people we met at the funeral that she was still sending out her letters up to the very end thanks to Janet, who provided her with stationery and made the necessary runs to the post office.

The smile that you see in the face of the little girl in the first photo, surrounded by her more sober family members, is the smile that was always ready to bless not only me, but to bless everyone who knew her. It has always been important for me to know that in a world immersed in seemingly endless cynicism, such a person as Babe does exist outside novelists’ creations. What I wish I knew is why it is so few of us are able to find that selfless, compassionate way of being. Babe, my beloved: Namaste.

* A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. Unlike a “tramp”, who works only when forced to, and a “bum”, who does not work at all, a “hobo” is a traveling worker. (Wikipedia)

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