Posted on November 14, 2008
Margaret Hoffner died earlier this week. She was 94.
To me, she was known as Grandma. To my mother, she was Mom. To my son, she was Greaty. I am not sure what others called her, since I always called her Grandma, but my cousins sometimes called her Marge, which seems pretty plausible.
When Grandma was born, the Germans invaded Belgium. I don’t think there was a connection, but it did put her on notice that her life would see a lot of history.
When Marge turned 15, the Great Depression hit. It would have a lasting impact on her life. She always preached frugality and simplicity. Wondering now why I didn’t spend more time listening to her on that message.
She married Ed Hurley smack dab in the middle of Depression. He was a Errol Flynn look-a-like, smart as a whip, and a big drinker. I once read some of the letters that he wrote Marge. He talked a lot about drinking. He and Marge had two kids, my mother and my Aunt Rosemary. Ed went to war (as did just about everybody) and when he came back from the war, he didn’t hang around too long with the family. Marge and Ed separated and divorced. His drinking was too much.
Marge was on the leading edge of a trend that would become more pronounced. She was a single mother. She worked at a factory, she scrimped and she saved, and she insisted that her kids go to Catholic schools. Times were tough, and I am not going to tell you that she wasn’t tough, because she was. But it was tough for everybody. And somehow she and her kids persevered.
She got remarried to Julius Hoffner, a German-American. They met at the factory where they both worked. Jake was quiet where Marge was gregarious. Jake fought in the Japanese Theater of the war, although he didn’t much talk about it. Both Marge and Jake were realistic about their fortunes. They were careful with their money.
We moved down the block from Jake and Gram when I was around two. All told, Grandma had 10 grandkids, and I don’t know how many great-grandkids. They would babysit us on occasion, although not nearly as often as my mom would have liked (or so she tells me). They would sit out back and drink Meister Brau and we would run around the block acting like kids. They would take us camping on occasion. Sometime we would camp in their backyard.
When I was eight, Grandma and Jake took me, my brother Jim and my cousin Danny to Florida on Amtrak. We went to Disney World. It is still the only time I have been to Disney World. They were good about that kind of stuff. They took my cousins Jack and Barry to San Francisco and my cousin Jane to Spain. Grandma loved to travel. Jake didn’t mind traveling, but he hated flying. They bought a Winnebago once and drove all through the West. One time they bought a small place in Florida, but they sold it. Too hot.
They were not wealthy, but they saved their money and were able to do cool things.
Later in life, Grandma and Jake took up square dancing, and Grandma took up swimming, three days a week. She also liked to have a drink every once in a while. Scotch on the rocks.
Jake died about 7 years ago. He had a heart condition. Grandma was heartbroken, but she plowed on. She insisted on living on her own. She liked to drive even in her 90’s. She wasn’t a good driver, but she got where she had to go.
Earlier this year, she went into the hospital, and it was discovered that she had a lump on her lung. It was assumed to be cancer, although at 94, the doctors weren’t going to spend too much time finding out. I sent her some flowers, and almost immediately she sent me a handwritten note thanking me. I could barely read the note. The handwriting was pretty shaky. But it touched me. When I was five, I wrote my first note to her. Now, she was writing one of her last notes to me.
I think about the turbulent history that Grandma saw. She was born at the start of the First World War, had two of her kids during the Great Depression, had her two husbands fight in the Second World War, lived through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf and the Iraq War.
When she was born, Ford had just manufactured its 200,000th car, and had just established an 8 hour workday with a 5 dollar a day minimum wage. Now, Ford is struggling for survival in the middle of the worst economies since the Depression.
When she was born, Great Britain was the superpower, Russia had a czar, Germany and France were at war with each other, and America was reluctant to flex its international muscles. When she died, the American century seemed to draw to a close, Russia seemed to be recreating a czar in Vladimir Putin, Great Britain’s empire has shrunk considerably, and Germany and France are the best of buddies.
When Grandma was born, the Ottoman Empire was just beginning to fall apart. Today, Osama Bin Laden is trying to create a new caliphate.
In 1914, James Fields Smathers of Kansas City invented what is considered the first practical power-operated typewriter. Today, Apple has a new 3G I Phone that can transport entire movies over the spectrum into a small handheld device.
In 1914, Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war. In 2008, President-elect Obama has promised to get us out of war. When Grandma was born, women did not have a national right to vote. That would come in 1920. When she died, two women almost made it to the White House (not really, but Hillary Clinton was the favorite to win, and only lost because of Barack Obama).
The 20th Century saw the depths of human depravity and the heights of human achievement. It saw the Holocaust and the man on the moon. And through it all, Grandma persevered. She lived her life, as she wanted to live, with simplicity, with grit, with character and with joy.
She had a chance to meet my son Jack a few times. Jack is two. I wonder what he will see in the next 94 years.